By DEBORAH CIRCELLI and LYDA LONGA
Daytona Beach News-Journal
June 2, 2005
Jerry Behnke still has flashbacks and cold sweats when he thinks about waking up last year at his homeless camp with his tent on fire.
He raised his hand in time to keep the tent from melting on his face, but he spent weeks at Orlando Regional Medical Center getting skin grafts for burns on both sides of his legs and his right hand.
The 51-year-old believes someone intentionally came to his camp after midnight last February off Beach Street near the Water Club Apartments, lit the entrances and doused his body with a flammable liquid. Officials with the Daytona Beach Fire Department said the fire could have been intentionally set or caused by winds stirring up ashes from the campfire.
“I woke up with the plastic tent melting on top of me,” said Behnke, who was attacked about four times in five years while on the streets but now lives in an apartment. “Most homeless just want to be left alone. We don’t want violence done against us. We just want to live our life in peace.”
Homeless advocates believe Behnke’s case was intentional and just one example of violence against homeless, either by teens, adults or within the homeless community. The beating death of Michael Eugene Roberts last week is just one indicator they say of a bigger problem of the dangers of living on the streets and an increase in cases homeless advocates say they are hearing about youths attacking those on the street. Two 18-year-olds and a 14-year-old have now been arrested in Robert’s beating in a patch of woods behind a car wash on Nova Road.
“There’s rarely a day that I don’t walk the line and see someone who has been beaten up, whether their mouth is busted open or they have stitches,” said Del Hillman, program coordinator of the Homeless Assistance Center in Daytona Beach.
Hillman said such abuse against the homeless is not new but only recently has he started hearing stories about attacks by youths. He said typically one youth will approach them from the front to distract them and then a group will come up from behind. Many homeless don’t report the incidents, Hillman said, because they want to protect their anonymity or they don’t believe the police will do anything.
Violence by homeless against homeless also is prevalent. John Michael Householder, living in a campsite in Edgewater, was killed earlier this year. Another homeless man was charged with killing him with a hatchet.
Daytona Beach police said two homeless men were walking along the railroad tracks in Daytona Beach near Kingston Avenue on Feb. 27 when they were attacked by five or six young men who started throwing rocks at them.
Calling the two homeless men names, the assailants beat the victims with their fists and a blunt object, then fled after rifling their pockets, according to police.
Both homeless men were treated for cuts and other injuries at Halifax Medical Center.
Larry, 51, who would not give his last name, lifted his sunglasses at the Homeless Assistance Center on Wednesday and revealed a black eye. He said a group of eight or 10 male teens approached him on the beach near the Daytona Beach Pier on Saturday night while he was grieving the death of his mother from breast cancer.
“They jumped me, beat me down and robbed me of $16,” said Larry, who added he didn’t report the incident because he has a record for possession of drugs.
Pamela Mosley, who works at the Homeless Assistance Center, said her now 22- year-old son was accosted twice by youths while they lived last year at Tuscawilla Park.
“It’s not safe,” said Mosley, who now lives in an apartment. “But I had no idea it was this bad where people are being beaten for no reason at all — just for the sake of it.”
The National Coalition for the Homeless states from 1999 to 2003 there were 131 homeless people killed from violent acts by people who are not homeless.
Professor Jeffrey A. Butts, a research fellow at the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago, was not surprised when he learned the suspects in the case are teenagers.
“A common feature of adolescent violence is a complete lack of empathy for the victim,” Butts said.
Butts said one of the methods used in attempting to help children at risk for violent behavior is to teach them that their victims do have feelings, they are not just objects.
“Some children do respond to intervention,” he said. “But other children never learn empathy.”
Stan Wise, 46, who said he knew Roberts and camped out with him recently, said Roberts never hurt anybody. He said he’s been jumped before, but by two other homeless adults while in a homeless camp.
“You sleep with one eye open and you sleep with an open knife,” Wise said. “That’s how you do it. You have to.”
Copyright © 2005 News-Journal Corporation