In the early hours of May 31, two students walking by the Isla Vista Medical Clinic spotted a homeless man lying near its entrance. Unlike all the other unsheltered homeless sleeping on bits of pavement and dirt in and around Santa Barbara at night, this man was bloody. And moaning. By the time an ambulance got him to Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, he was unconscious and his condition only worsened with time. Meanwhile, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department issued a statement saying the man, 53-year-old Gregory Ghan, appeared to have been assaulted. On June 10, when family took Ghan off life support, that assault became a murder.
Little is known about Gregory Ghan. He had a history of alcohol abuse. He was a loner, a camper, probably in Isla Vista for the Chula Vista festival. Jennifer Ferraez, a homeless outreach worker with the county, said he didn’t like the shelters. Similarly, little is known about his attack, even now, eight weeks after it occurred. Sheriff’s investigators have no serious suspects. They have information but are keeping most of it to themselves. They did, however, tell The Independent the attack was committed by two to five people. And they acknowledged there was a witness, another homeless man who goes by the name Shadow.
Wracked with guilt for not interrupting the fight, Shadow told The Independent some of what he saw and heard. He was sleeping behind a bush near the clinic the night of Ghan’s assault when the sound of arguing and physical fighting woke him. Someone repeatedly said, “Why do you gotta kick somebody while they’re sleeping?” According to Shadow, a different male then said, “You want to fucking die?” Shadow claims to have heard a bottle breaking and saw a young white male hopping around like a boxer and running off. Sometime afterward, a group of five people ran past the clinic entrance, and one reportedly said, “You’re messing with our frat brother.”
Sheriff’s Department Sergeant Ross Ruth, who supervises Crimes Against Persons cases in the South County, said his team interviewed Shadow three times, but isn’t convinced the perpetrators were students or young men on a meth-induced spree. Nor are they sure it was other homeless people wanting whatever government check Ghan may have had in his pocket. They’re still looking for leads and hope anyone who knows anything about it will contact them.
But Santa Barbara homeless advocates say this story is bigger than Ghan’s death. In recent months, they say, violent assaults on the homeless at the hands of the housed have increased, mirroring a trend taking place across America, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless and news outlets like the New York Times. Last month, a 42-year-old homeless man was beaten to death by teenagers in Cleveland, Ohio. The Associated Press reported six Bolinas, California, youths attacked and stabbed a homeless man in June. Meanwhile, five homeless individuals in Santa Barbara recounted violent assaults by non-homeless individuals since January. But because of poor relations with law enforcement, only two of them were reported to authorities.
“There’s been a climate of declaring open season on people on the streets,” said Father Jon-Stephen Hedges of Isla Vista’s St. Athanasius Orthodox Church. “A lot of people talk publicly about the bums, like they’re varmints.”
Homeless man Holliman-not his actual name-said he was hanging with friends on an I.V. beach in the evening last May and decided to take a walk. He realized he’d gone too far by himself when a chubby, 30-ish white man accosted him and began hitting him. Holliman recalled the man said things like, “I have to work for a living” and “You don’t have the right to get a check.” He fought back and the man eventually withdrew. But half of Holliman’s face was swollen and black and blue, and three ribs were broken. Hedges saw him afterward. “He was definitely smashed up,” Hedges said.
Raymond Lucero, aka Pirate, said he was attacked last January while talking to a friend on lower Milpas Street. Out of the blue, he said, a skinny, six-foot-tall African-American man emerged from an alley carrying a log with nails sticking out of it. Lucero said the man, who did not look familiar-and he said he knows all the homeless in the area-was “cussing up a storm, and said, ‘Get off the street. Get off my block.'” He took two swings at Lucero, the second breaking his elbow in multiple places. Santa Barbara police have a report of that incident, but Sgt. Mike McGrew said the investigation died due to a lack of leads.
Neither the police nor the county’s Sheriff’s departments have evidence of an increase in attacks on homeless by non-homeless. But since most homeless don’t report, McGrew acknowledged, it’s possible one exists. “I know that it does occur,” McGrew said, “that people get upset [with the homeless] and yell at them. But they don’t generally go to the police. That’s their code.”
The National Coalition for the Homeless keeps records of fatal and non-fatal assaults on the homeless. An April 2008 report, Hate, Violence, and Death on Main Street U.S.A., states that attacks on the homeless by non-homeless rose 13 percent between 2006 and 2007, with fatal attacks rising 40 percent. That translates to 160 homeless people reportedly assaulted in 2007, 28 of whom died. Sixty-four percent of the attacks are said to have been perpetrated by youths between 13 and 19 years old.
Brian Levin heads the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at the UC Riverside. He said with the exception of homicides, attacks on the homeless don’t make it into government measurements of violent crimes. They’re invisible victims, he said. And, as other groups targeted for hate get laws passed to protect them, young people are looking for newer, easier-to-hit victims. And the homeless are “one of the last groups in society that it is okay to hate,” he said.
Perhaps the most recent example of this disregard for homeless in Santa Barbara is 47-year-old Christhea Puglia, who is staying at Casa Esperanza. On July 16, while she was reading a book in Dwight Murphy Field, two men approached her and asked for money. She stood up to leave. One smacked her across the face and hit her hard, knocking her down. They began kicking her, she said, and at least one got on top of her and tried to pull her pants off. Her dog woke up from his nap under the bleachers, and began barking and bit one man on the ankle, Puglia said. Her attackers fled. Puglia said her assailants were in their thirties, clean-shaven, and wearing nicer clothes than you see on the homeless. One had a moustache and a tattoo, she said. It wasn’t until hours after the attack that the police took a report-at Puglia’s request. No arrests have been made.
Hedges acknowledged that many find it easy to dismiss statements from the homeless. Sometimes their stories change, or mental illness or a drinking problem impair their thinking. People shouldn’t ignore a story just because it’s fuzzy around the edges, he said. “It doesn’t mean the bruises are there because he fell down drunk,” he said. “That dog won’t hunt.”