Homeless violence more common in California than other states

California is ranked number one in the country for acts of violence against homeless people.
California is ranked number one in the country for acts of violence against homeless people.
David McNew/Getty Images

Over the past two weeks in Los Angeles County, two different homeless people have been set on fire while they slept.

A 67-year-old homeless woman remains in critical condition after being doused in a flammable liquid and set on fire early Thursday morning in Van Nuys; a 55-year-old homeless man was severly injured after being burned outside a donut shop in Norwalk. 

But how common are acts of violence against homeless?

According to the National Coaition for the Homeless, between 1999 and 2010 there were
1,184 acts of violence committed against homeless people in the U.S. resulting in 312
homeless deaths. In 2010, the coalition ranked California number one for the most number of "hate crimes against the homeless," with 225 incidents occuring throughout these 12 years. Florida follows at number two with 198 incidents.

According to a report from the coalition, these states may have the most frequent attacks because of their warm temperatures make it easier to live outside. But living out in the open can make the homeless easier targets for hate crimes.

And according to the "State of Homeless in America 2012" by the National Alliance to End Homelessness,  California has more than 130,000 homeless people; compared to New York's approximately 63,000 and Florida's less than 57,000 homeless.

Attacks on homeless include beatings, rapes, assaults with a deadly weapon, shootings, exploitation and harassment. In 2010, one percent of these acts of violence involved a homeless person being set on fire. Most attacks are "motivated by the perpetrators’ bias against homeless individuals or their ability to target homeless people with relative ease."

According to the coalition, most of this violence is committed by men under the age of 30.

This seems to ring true with Thursday's attack in Van Nuys, in which police have arrested 24-year-old Dennis Petillo and booked him for investigation of attempted murder. LAPD said the incident occurred at about 1 a.m. outside a Walgreens drug store near Van Nuys Boulevard and Sherman Way.

"I've seen arson deaths before, and it's very vicious," LAPD Lt. Walt Teague told NBC. "We're hoping for the best."

These outdoor acts of violence come on the heels of a seasonal housing program announced by the L.A. Homeless Services Authority, which aims to provide additional shelter for homeless people during the coldest months of the year. This "Winter Shelter Program" is funded by the City of Los Angeles and County of Los Angeles and provides 1,500 additional beds as well as meals and supportive services for L.A. homeless.

Most of these housing sites - from Lancaster to Pomona, Glendale, Long Beach, Bell, Downtown L.A. and others - opened in the first few weeks of December and will remain in service to March.

Last week on Skid Row, L.A.'s densest homeless population, LAPD Officer Deon Joseph walked the streets handing out pamphlets to homeless and encouraging them to take advantage of this winter housing program. Joseph is the Senior Lead Officer and has worked Skid Row for 14 years. He said that although people being set on fire is fairly rare, violence against the homeless is not.

"As long as they're sleeping on the sidewalk they're always going to be susceptible to robberies and things like that," he added.

Joseph said people have shot paintballs at the homeless, beaten them over the head with 2 x 4's, and even tried to rape women as they slept.

"There's a whole lot of things that I can not erase from my mind," he said.