The shocking case of an alleged serial killer who targeted unhoused people in Los Angeles throughout last month is bringing attention to the dangers faced by those living on the street.
Jerrid Joseph Powell, 33, made his first appearance in Los Angeles court on Monday, and will enter a plea in January. Officials accuse him of shooting three unhoused people to death, and killing a fourth man, an LA county employee, in November.
The killings, which took place over four consecutive days between 26 and 29 November, shook the public and caused concerns about the safety of Los Angeles’s estimated population of over 75,000 unhoused people.
“This is a killer who is preying on the unhoused,” LA Mayor Karen Bass said at a news conference earlier this month. “Many friends and family members know how to reach their unhoused relatives. We need you to contact them today. We need you to tell them about this danger.”
Police were able to find Mr Powell by using security video to identify his car and track it to Beverley Hills. Law enforcement automatic license-plate readers later flagged the car, leading to a traffic stop where the 33-year-old was arrested on Thursday and allegedly found with a gun tied to the killing of the county worker, Nicholas Simbolon.
While in prison, police used the car and gun to connect Mr Powell to the other killings.
Los Angeles Police Department chief Michael Moore said last week that Mr Powell appeared to be a “homicidal serial killer.”
A search of Los Angeles court records did not indicate whether Mr Powell has legal representation.
According to Theo Henderson, an activist and formerly unhoused person in LA who hosts the podcast We The Unhoused, the idea of a serial killer targeting homeless people is “not the surprise that housed people think.”
He told The Independent many unhoused people have been attacked at random.
For his part, he’s been assaulted by drunken strangers leaving a bar, and once was stabbed so severely he needed major surgery to repair his colon.
“Many unhoused people have stories of being attacked by members of the community,” Mr Henderson said. “Contrary to housed people’s opinions, unhoused people don’t start randomly attacking them.”
Instead, he said, it’s because strangers feel they have “the divine right of kings to kick out our people who they feel are a danger to society or the community.”
The November killings of the three unhoused people, who were sometimes asleep when Mr Powell allegedly attacked them according to police, is not the first time homeless people have come under threat of violence.
“The public is often very frightened of people who experience homelessness,” Dr Margot Kushel, director of the Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative at the University of California, San Francisco, told The New York Times earlier this month about the LA case. “But what they don’t realize is that people experiencing homelessness are frightened all the time.”
A spate of attacks on unhoused people in San Francisco
San Francisco, another California city with a serious housing problem, has been home to repeated attacks on the unhoused, in what some argue is the work of a single former city official – though he has also been attacked by a homeless man.
In April, former San Francisco fire commissioner Don Carmignani, 53, was allegedly brutally beaten with a metal object by an unhoused man named Garret Doty, who has since been arrested and may go on trial for assault and battery. He maintains the blows were in self-defence.
However, in the course of media attention to the case, it was revealed that since 2021, unhoused people living near the Marina neighbourhood where the Carmignani incident took place had been attacked with chemical agents, including a case in which an unknown assailant allegedly opened someone’s tent flap and sprayed mace inside.
During the April altercation between Mr Doty and the fire commissioner, Mr Carmignani’s own can of pepper spray went off by accident, according to the man, and a local witness said she heard Mr Carmignani threaten the homeless man earlier that day.
Witnesses to the previous attacks on homeless people have described a man matching Mr Carmignani’s physical description in some cases, though the former fire official has repeatedly denied any link. San Francisco police began investigating the spray attacks in May.
During pre-trial hearings in the Doty case, Mr Carmignani repeatedly invoked the Fifth Amendment when asked about the past attacks on homeless people in the area. His lawyer has said this was to avoid tesifying about unrelated incidents during the case about the April assault.
Violence in Washington
Last October, a man accused of stalking and shooting multiple sleeping homeless people in Washington DC and New York City earlier that year.
He was charged with 17 offences including murder, assault and firearm offences.
He allegedly attacked three men in Washington in March of that year, shooting two and allegedly shooting and stabbing a third, then setting his tent on fire.
In total, he was wanted for five alleged attacks in New York and Washington over the course of two weeks.
The suspect, Gerald Brevard was arrested in March following a multi-agency investigation involving the Washington DC police, NYPD, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
“The murder and assaults were bias-related hate crimes,” according to the Justice Department.
Brevard pleaded not guilty, and a trial is set for October 2024, according to court records.
Killings in New York
While New York City offers residents a unique right to shelter, members of its unhoused community have also faced attacks.
In 2022, a man with a knife allegedly stabbed three homeless men in their sleep, killing one.
Trevon Murphy, 40, who allegedly carried out the attacks, was homeless himself at the time. A family member told The New York Times he suffered from mental illness.
Murphy made a “full confession in video-recorded statements,” according to the Manhattan DA’s office.
Two years prior, four homeless men were bludgeoned to death in their sleep in the Chinatown section of Manhattan. Randy Santos, 24, initially pleaded not guilty to the charges, as he sought potential mental health-related defence.
Police say he admitted to being the person captured on video attacking some of the unhoused men who were killed, but Mr Santos has also said he doesn’t remember the incidents and was homeless himself at the time.
His next court appearance is in early 2024, according to court records.