A search was underway Monday for a gunman who was stalking homeless men sleeping on the streets of Washington, DC and New York City, fatally shooting two people and wounding three others in less than two weeks.
The killer’s motive – if any – was unknown and authorities were focused on Monday on providing as much shelter as possible to homeless people who could become targets.
New York Mayor Eric Adams said police officers and homeless teams would focus on finding people without shelter on the subways and other places, urging them to take refuge in city shelters.
“The case is a clear and horrific premeditated act of taking someone’s life, it appears, because he was homeless,” Adams said at a news conference late Sunday. “Two people were shot dead while sleeping on the street, not committing a crime but sleeping on the street.”
In Washington, city social workers distributed flyers to the homeless population, urging people to “be vigilant” and showing several pictures of the suspect.
“Our accommodations have space and are ready to accommodate residents who need a place to stay,” the flyers say.
The recent violence underscored the urgency of getting the homeless off the streets and into safe shelters, said Jacquelyn Simone, the policy director of the Coalition for the Homeless in New York City.
“The reason these people were attacked is because they didn’t have the security of permanent housing,” she said. “And that’s why we really need to use these tragedies as an opportunity to redouble our efforts to make sure people have a better off alternative than the streets, where they’re exposed to both the elements and people who might want to harm them.”
Simone and other homeless advocates called on the city to use vacant hotel rooms as temporary housing for those who would rather stay on the streets than opt for dormitories.
The earliest known shooting happened around 4 a.m. on March 3 in Washington DC, police said, when a man was shot and injured in the city’s northeast. A second man was injured just before 1:30 a.m. on March 8
The next day, March 9, at 3 a.m., police and firefighters found a man dead in a burning tent. A subsequent autopsy revealed that the man had died from multiple stab and gunshot wounds.
The killer then apparently traveled north to New York City, police said.
At 4:30 a.m. Saturday, a 38-year-old man who was sleeping on a Manhattan street near the entrance to the Holland Tunnel was shot in the right arm while he was sleeping.
The victim screamed and the gunman fled, police said.
About 90 minutes later, the gunman shot dead another man on Lafayette Street in SoHo, police said. The man’s body was found in his sleeping bag just before 5 p.m. Saturday.
“Any of us who are homeless could have found ourselves in the same situation,” said Kess Abraham, who became homeless last month.
After finding refuge in parks and other places in Brooklyn and Manhattan, Abraham tried to find help at the Bowery Mission, which shelters hundreds of homeless people at its facilities across the city.
He said he was “painful” to find out about “a guy who lived on the street and was probably minding his own business and was murdered for no reason.”
Joel Castillo, a 24-year-old newcomer to homelessness who was also at the mission’s downtown facility, said more should be done to keep the city’s residents safe — homeless or not.
“I don’t know if it’s a police issue, but given the circumstances, the police should actually be doing a little bit more. I’m not saying they’re not doing enough already,” he said, “but what I’m saying is that a lot more action should be taken to ensure the city’s taxpayers are protected.”
Police determined that the same person committed the attacks based on the similarities of each shooting and evidence found from the scenes. Police said the victims were attacked without provocation.
“Obviously this is a very sobering and evolving story. Of course, we don’t have a suspect in custody yet. As such, we are very concerned for the safety of our neighbors who are homeless and sleeping outside right now,” said James Winans, the mission’s chief executive officer. “It’s very sobering to see someone killed just three blocks from our emergency shelter, someone who was sleeping outdoors.”
Police officials in New York and Washington said they were working quickly to apprehend a suspect.
The attacks were reminiscent of the deaths of four homeless men asleep on the street in Chinatown, New York, in the fall of 2019. Another homeless man, Randy Santos, has pleaded not guilty to the murder charges in those attacks.
A year ago, four people were stabbed, two fatally, in New York City by a man who indiscriminately attacked homeless people on the subway system. This attacker, who was also homeless, is awaiting trial.
The mayor of New York City has come under fire for his plan to remove homeless people from the city’s subway system, using police and psychiatric workers to prevent people from getting on trains and subway stations to sleep.
Adams said homelessness is a complicated problem that is being exacerbated by the pandemic, economic downturn and mental health challenges.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said the state is working to make more psychiatric beds available in hospitals by increasing the amount of money hospitals receive to provide the beds.
By BOBBY CAINA CALVAN and ASHRAF KHALIL
Ashraf Khalil reported from Washington, DC