Assaults on homeless by youngsters on the rise, says new report

A quarter of deaths among those living on the streets preceded by some kind of attack

Alfonso L. Congostrina
The area in Horta where ‘Paquito’ was assaulted.
The area in Horta where ‘Paquito’ was assaulted.Consuelo Bautista

Eight youngsters were wandering the streets of the Barcelona neighborhood of Horta in the early hours of June 7. After celebrating the Champions League win of the city’s team, they were returning home unaccompanied, and boarded a subway train. The youngest were aged 12, the oldest 16.

Three or four stations before they arrived at their stop they decided how they were going to end their exciting day. “We’ll pay a visit to Paquito.”

They approach the human shape on the floor and throw bottles at it, recording the assault on a cellphone

Paquito is not a friend of theirs, nor is it a bar that opens early… Paquito is a homeless person, whose real name is Juan, and who sleeps in the corner of one of the streets near the doctor’s surgery in their neighborhood. It would not be the first time they had insulted or laughed at him. Juan always responds, which makes the whole thing even funnier. They approach the human shape on the floor and while they throw bottles at it, which cut his skin as they smash against him, they record the assault on a cellphone.

Juan ended up in hospital. Fortunately, the cuts were not deep and he was discharged after a few hours.

María del Rosario Endrinal Petit did not have the same luck. She was 50 years old when, one night in December 2005, three youngsters – one of whom was a minor – approached the ATM vestibule where she was sleeping in Barcelona’s Sant Gervasi neighborhood. They assaulted her, pouring inflammable liquid over her and setting her on fire. She died a few days later.

Jesús Ruiz, the director of the Assís homeless shelter, has the figures clear in his head: “In Spain every five days a homeless person dies, in 25% of cases because of an assault.”

There are young people who are constantly ending their nights out by assaulting a homeless person”

Assís forms part of Hatento, an observatory for hate crimes against homeless people. The study cited began collecting data via media reports following the assault against Endrinal Petit, an executive secretary who had ended up on the streets after going through a particularly hard time. Ruiz explains that the average age of homeless people who die while sleeping rough is 47.

“Unfortunately, the assault in Horta is not an exception, there are young people who are constantly ending their nights out by assaulting a homeless person,” Ruiz explains. The director of the shelter says there is an “educational” element in many teenagers, which makes them feel superior to the rest and “have the right to assault, or to set fire to, a homeless person, record it and distribute it.”

Around 47% of homeless people have suffered an incident or a hate crime as a result of intolerance or prejudice toward their situation of extreme social exclusion, and of this group, 81.3% have suffered such an incident more than once, according to the Hatento report.

The majority of the people responsible for these incidents or hate crimes – 87% – were men, while 57% were aged between 18 and 35, according to the data, which was collected via interviews.

In total, 28.4% of the experiences analyzed were perpetrated by youngsters who had been out drinking; 10.1% relayed experiences related to the police services; and 7.3% of incidents involved far-right neo-Nazi groups.

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Neurologist and psychiatrist Joan Romeu explains that in the majority of these cases, teenagers who display “antisocial” behavior are not suffering from a condition, but rather have a “moral framework that is lacking in values.”

Romeu cites the 1961 trial in Israel against the Nazi Adolf Eichmanm. “At the time, the German philosopher Hannah Arendt spoke of the theory of the banality of evil, which explained that the Nazis weren’t evil but that they had been educated to think that evil could be something that had no importance,” the psychiatrist explains. The controversial theory was the subject of much debate, but Romeu believes it may have merit. “Some teenagers believe that the homeless are on the bottom of the scale, that they are people who serve no purpose, that they are not productive, that they are wretched, useless… and as such it is banal to do them harm, or even a good thing.”

The local police detained the youngsters who assaulted the homeless man in Horta last week after just a few minutes – except for the youngest, who, only being 12, cannot be arrested or charged under Spanish law. None of them has so far admitted being part of the assault, but the five youths have been released by a judge under police monitoring. Paquito has since moved his improvised bed on, and no one has seen him in Horta for some days now.

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