Arrests put spotlight on homeless violence

By Israel Bayer
Staff writer

The recent arrest of 11 homeless people in connection of a murder of a woman in May near the Steel Bridge has drawn attention to violence on the streets of Portland. The arrests come on the heals of another homicide on the streets, the death of Christine Ione Lawson, a transient woman found murdered June 10 on 2nd Avenue

According to people living on the streets there is no doubt the atmosphere has become more violent. As reported in street roots (May 1, "Hating the Homeless") people are more vulnerable today than in recent years because of social service cuts and increased anxiety. Portland ranks seventh in the nation for having the most dangerous streets, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. At the same time, advocates say isolated incidents shouldn't be used to stigmatize homeless people overall as being a violent culture.

"The streets are not a safe place for the homeless youth, but, by far, the majority of homeless youth are good kids," said Kathy Oliver, executive director of Outside In. "This is a tragedy and shouldn't be reflective of the homeless youth. We've helped 68 kids get jobs, and sent 20 kids to college last year. These kids are trying. Many homeless youth have lost their own families, and band together for protection. It's very rare that this kind of violence occurs."

Eleven street youths and homeless individuals were arrested on the morning of June 11 for the murder of Jessica Williams, 22. A Union Pacific employee discovered her bludgeoned body under the Esplanade Footbridge near the east side of the Steel Bridge on May 23. Williams was stabbed and set on fire, according to reports. Williams was known to frequent the Portland streets, and on some occasions use homeless shelters when she was not staying with her parents.

"What I'm worried about is that the media will take a line on homeless families, and somehow say breaking a rule could potentially lead to someone's death. They'll probably take this incident, as tragic as it may be, and apply it to all homeless people," said Jack Tafari, chairman of Dignity Village.

The Multnomah County District Attorney's office says one of the arrested youths claims that the group charged in William's murder got its start at the Portland Peace Encampment located across from the City Hall building. The encampment members are protesting the city's anti-camping ordinance.

"The probable clause affidavit says that Crystal Ann Grace said that she met Nelson and DK at the Portland Peace camp in late March. Nelson was the 'father' of the street family, and DK was the main warrior that carried out the killing," said Norm Frank of the district attorney's office.

But at least one person who has been with the encampment for months said that reports that the street family got its start at the encampment are inaccurate.

"This is public property," said Todd Kurylowicz of the Portland Peace Encampment. "There are people who have access to the encampment, and we've met a wide range of people from a wide range of life. We also maintain basic principles at the encampment no drugs, and no violence. We are a peaceful environment where anybody in the community can go. We've been marginalized by the Portland Police. When they come in to harass the encampment, they push kids out, and the kids scatter to a hostile environment on the streets, "

Kurylowicz said that James Nelson, who reportedly formed the core of the family from relationships at the encampment, never once spent the night at the Peace Encampment. He was only there one day, Kurylowicz said.

Williams was reportedly killed because she broke a rule in the street family, and the group then lashed out and killed her.

"Some people in the homeless culture can be very violent people," said Sgt. Brian Schmautz with the Portland Police Department. "And the streets are getting more violent, in part because they are populated by younger, more aggressive individuals than in previous years."

Schmautz said he wasn't aware of any plans to increase police activity regarding homeless camps.

Jonathon, 23, says he has been working as an independent street youth advocate in Portland, and that the notion of a street "family" is being twisted by the violent group of youths who were arrested in connection with Williams' murder. Jonathon said he knows members of the group, including Williams, and that "they were always trying to create drama." Real street families, he said, are a supportive and positive network for survival. Jonathon said he told people to stay away from them, including Williams.

"It's such a catastrophe," Jonathon said. "Everybody liked her. She was always doing things for other people."

Jonathon said he is concerned about the fallout on homeless people with the bad publicity surrounding the recent spate of violence on the street.

"I think it's really going to change," Jonathon said. "I can already see people walking around us. I know we're already looked at differently because of the bad media."

The group involved in the William's case is an aberration, he said.

"Anybody that isn't willing to come down to ask what the truth is, then they're ignorant and prefer to stay that way."

Jonathon also said to his knowledge the 'family' was not connected to the peace encampment, and had their own camp.

"It seems when a homeless person gets killed the press isn't as interested," said Jamie Manuel, with crossroads. "But when a homeless person gets killed by another homeless person then it's suddenly front page news."