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Attacking Homeless People Not a Random Act PDF Print E-mail
Written by Alex Garcia   
Thursday, 03 January 2013 05:29

Two Recent Incidents, One In Van Nuys, Underscores The Severity Of The Problem


If you're homeless, living on the streets is difficult enough.

One woman, who chooses to only give her first name, Arlene, is often seen in front of a post office sitting on a brick planter holding a sign asking for help.

Arlene, 57 years old, is one of an estimated 4,727 homeless persons in the San Fernando Valley, according to a 2011 report by the Los angeles homeless services authority (Lahsa). she works hard to keep her appearance up and people often comment that she doesn't "look homeless," but she is wearing the same black outfit day after day, in cold and hot weather. she washes in public bathrooms and quietly sleeps inside a nearby church. "I think they know I sleep there, but thank God, they haven't asked me to leave," Arlene said.

By daybreak, she knows she has to exit quickly and walks along busy reseda Boulevard, stopping at the post office where she prays quietly to herself and holds up her sign.

"People can be really cruel, they yell at me and tell me to just go get a job. One person yelled at me, telling me to go to Target because they were hiring."

What they didn't know, Arlene said, is that she had already been there, and many other places, and had been turned down. "Who is going to hire someone my age? and when they learn that I am deaf in one ear and sometimes have to ask them to repeat themselves, they don't want to be bothered," she said.


People, who stop to give her some change ask her why she hasn't gone to a church for help. "I have," she said. "I'm armenian, and I've gone to armenian churches and everyone tells me to go get help somewhere else." no one knows what it's really like being homeless, she said.

It's especially hard for a single woman without family.

and that difficult life can be compounded by abuse from the general public. nearly 1,200 acts of abuse and violence against homeless victims were documented in a 12-year study by the national Coalition for the homeless, covering the years 1999- 2010 (see sidebar). The acts included murder, rapes, beatings and setting people on fire.

There were two such attacks on homeless people last month in southern California. On dec. 27, a man allegedly poured rubbing alcohol on a homeless woman sleeping on a bus stop bench and then lit her on fire, leaving her with burns all over her body. The incident took place at approximately 1 a.m. on the corner of sherman Way and Van nuys Boulevard in Van nuys.

a suspect, dennis Petillo, 24, was arrested and booked at the LaPd's Van nuys station. On Monday, dec. 31, Petillo was arraigned in Van nuys superior court for attempted murder and aggravated mayhem. he remains in jail in lieu of $1.03 million bail.

If convicted, Petillo could face a maximum life sentence in state prison. The anger and disgust could be seen on the face and heard in the voice of housing rights activist Paul dumont after learning what happened.

"This is horrible," said dumont, who works for the nonprofit agency The sober Living network, as he visited the burnedout bus bench, which has since been removed.

"There's monsters in this world. There's no words to explain this," said dumont, referring to Petillo.

Ken Craft, president and CEO of the hope of the Valley rescue Mission in sun Valley, said women are particularly vulnerable targets.

"Currently 41 percent of the homeless population are families and the majority of these are single women with children," Craft said. "We recently opened our emergency shelter for homeless adults. nearly 50 percent of our guests are women and the majority of them are over 50 years of age. "Women and children are truly the most vulnerable of those living on the streets due to unemployment, home eviction, mental illness and abuse. We as a society need to create solutions and shelter to help our brothers and sisters. If not us…who? If not now…when?"

a witness said the suspect went into a Walgreen's drug store in front of the bus bench and purchased what is believed to be rubbing alcohol, which he allegedly poured over the woman, then set her on fire. "he just poured it all over the old lady, then he threw a match on her, and then started running," said eyewitness Erickson Pina, who said Petillo also threatened him with a knife.

Pina told a camera crew that he phoned 911, and followed the suspect until police arrived and arrested him.

no motive or theory as to what could have provoked the incident has been revealed.

For dumont, the incident was simply a reaction to the state of housing in Los angeles and the hatred some people have toward others less fortunate.

"With the housing market the way it is, there's more homeless on the street, and that brings an increase in hate crimes against the homeless. People don't like them, don't want to see them in their neighborhood, they want them hidden," dumont said.

Many in the neighborhood knew the 67- year-old woman as "Violet."

"she kept to herself and didn't talk much," said sonia Merbiles, a housing rights advocate who works with san Fernando Valley homeless, and who carried a sign of protest at the bus stop bench, where plastic flowers and a few candles mark the spot where the attack occurred. Merbiles said that Violet did talk with people on the street, asking about families, their situation and why they wanted to talk to her.

"she was a very peaceful old lady. she didn't bother anybody," said david Torres, adding Violet had been at that corner for more than a year.

"It's uncalled for what he did," Torres said. "It's absurd what happened. I pray for (the suspected attacker)."

This was not the only incident. On dec. 19, a 55-year-old homeless man was set on fire while still in his sleeping bag in norwalk.

according to the Los angeles County Sheriff's Department, the man was doused with an unknown liquid and set on fire about 12:45 p.m. outside a donut shop at 12852 Pioneer Boulevard. A passerby heard the man's screams and called the fire department. This week he was still in serious condition at a hospital burn unit. Authorities had no suspect in that attack, but don't believe that incident and the one in Van Nuys are related.

For Barbara Weiss, who lives near the scene where the homeless woman was attacked in Van Nuys, the incident is simply a "hate crime" against those less fortunate.

"Just because you're homeless doesn't mean you're not worth anything," Weiss said. The LAHSA report estimated there are more than 51,000 homeless people in Los Angeles county. "With that kind of volume, we have a lot of exposed persons living on streets and places that can be susceptible to crime," said Peter Griffith, LAHSA director of communications. Griffith said when acts of abuse and violence occur, law enforcement authorities and agencies like LAHSA try to increase vigilance and do more to protect the homeless.

"We try to encourage the homeless to be aware of their surroundings, take advantage of shelters, and report anything that is suspicious," he said. "Also stay in lit areas and with other groups of people, things of that nature.

"But this [problem] is ongoing.

Unfortunately, people do bad things. But [the public is] generally concerned about crimes, and hope all perpetrators are arrested" he said.

Last Updated on Friday, 04 January 2013 18:44

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