PORTLAND, Ore. — Anthony Johnson tried to help his younger brother, Michael. He visited the tent Michael was living in at least once a week — offering new shoes or maybe a hot shower.
“That’s my brother. My only brother,” said Anthony. “I was always out there trying to help him and get him off the street, but he wasn’t ready.”
On December 23, police say someone shot and killed Michael Johnson. The 53-year-old was found dead inside his tent near Farragut Park in North Portland.
Over the past 12 months, KGW found there have been nearly a dozen fatal shootings in Portland involving the homeless or near encampments.
Outreach workers and police suggest these shootings connected to people experiencing homelessness are a relatively new phenomenon which coincide with Portland’s rising gun violence.
“I would say there are more shootings probably in more homeless areas and communities,” said Dr. Vernon Baker of Just Compassion, a Washington County based non-profit focused on services for those experiencing homelessness.
It’s difficult to measure the increase in gun violence among the homeless because nobody’s tracking the data. Unlike sex or race, housing status is not something detectives log when recording a crime victim’s data.
Anecdotally, Portland Police have said that about 25% of all shootings involve people experience homelessness — but again, there’s no hard data.
Dr. Baker, who does homeless outreach, explained those living on the streets have always been vulnerable to violence and many of them are seeking protection.
“People are beginning to arm themselves and you are beginning to see more and more weapons on people who are houseless,” said Baker.
In the past, investigators found arguments between the homeless involved knives or other weapons, but now, guns are becoming more common. And the consequences are deadly.
“I’m just hoping police can solve this,” said Johnson. No arrests have been made in his brother’s murder. He sees no clear motive. Gun violence among the homeless can be fueled by a variety of factors including drugs, jealousy or theft.
“Once you get out there and you’ve been out there for years, you get to where you are conditioned to that hard lifestyle,” said Johnson. “It becomes like the wild, wild west.”
Some of the shootings in Portland have involved crimes against the homeless. In January, a man living on the street was shot dead in Portland’s Old Town Chinatown after an altercation with a person in a car.
Other cases have involved those experiencing homelessness attacking one another. Noah Smith is charged with shooting another homeless man in a tent in March and killing a homeless woman.
Solving these crimes can be especially tough because people experiencing homelessness are often reluctant to work with police, even when they’re the victims of crime.
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Dr. Baker suggested solutions involve making guns harder to get because they’re too accessible on the street. Additionally, he believes the community needs to provide greater support and safe spaces for those experiencing homelessness.
“It would go a long way to reduce and eliminate gun violence in our community,” said Baker.
Anthony Johnson hopes people understand the significance of his brother’s death.
Michael attended Woodlawn Elementary and Grant High School. He was described as a quiet and giving man, who leaves behind a son and a heartbroken family.
“No matter if he’s homeless or rich. He’s still a human being,” said Johnson.