Police, activists can't agree on rise in violence toward homeless

Thursday, November 5, 2009 at 2:39am

As the shooting death of 46-year-old Edward Matthews might illustrate, Nashville's homeless are one segment of the population particularly vulnerable to violent crime.

Often mentally troubled, addicted to drugs or reticent when it comes to reporting crimes to police, the area homeless could be seen as easy targets for criminals, according to some homeless activists. They worry that Matthews is a tragic example of a troubling trend.

However, Metro Police said Wednesday that it does not believe homeless individuals are preyed upon in great numbers. Although the department does not keep track of specific data on homeless victims, officers anecdotally say they rarely see crimes targeted at the indigent.

“Any given week you may have a few reports of homeless-on-homeless issues, assaults, that type of thing, but as far as non-homeless individuals assaulting or committing crimes against homeless, that is rare,” said Metro Police spokesman Don Aaron.

Matthews, who was found dead Tuesday morning on a park bench at Fifth Avenue and Church Street, joins other well-publicized instances of homeless crime, including the September assault of a homeless man by two men downtown on Union Street and the 2006 killing of a homeless woman who was thrown into the Cumberland River.

These instances are not the norm, according to Aaron. Crime in the central downtown precinct is down about 25 percent in 2009, he added.

Police make an overt effort to help the homeless, he said.

“More than a 1,000 times this year a police officer has offered assistance to persons living on the street,” Aaron explained. “Much of the time that assistance is not accepted.”

One reason police say they keep in close contact with the homeless is to develop an open and trusting atmosphere.

“We would hope that if they needed to tell us something about someone who's committing crimes or someone who's been victimized, that would come out through that interaction,” Aaron said.

Homeless individuals are targeted by criminals because their situations are often vulnerable, according to Ed Grimes, the director of transient operations at the Nashville Rescue Mission.

“Certainly [the homeless] get targeted,” Grimes said. “There are those who are seeking to gain from the naïve and there are those who prey upon those who are addicted. They know these people sometimes have money and so they target them.” 

Grimes added that the homeless are less likely to report crimes, but not because of the behavior of the Metro Police.

“[Police] don't really get the credit they deserve for the work they do,” he said. “They are always called on to be the peacemakers.”

Metro Police continue to investigate Matthews’ death, but no arrests have been made.