Violent Rhetoric Puts Florida’s Unhoused At Risk

Politicians and community members often put Florida’s unhoused at risk by perpetuating harmful, and sometimes violent, rhetoric.

By Robert Davis

Violence against homeless people in Florida has reached epic proportions, and some advocates say the rhetoric spewed by public leaders and community members is making the issue worse.

Attacks against the unhoused are not new and they have been happening in greater frequency across the country at a time when homelessness is increasing, and the rising cost of living is threatening to put more people out onto the streets. Florida’s legislature added “homelessness” to a list of protected classes under the state’s hate crime statutes in 2010, four years after one of the state’s most memorable attacks against the homeless community.

In 2006, two teenagers were arrested for killing a homeless man with a baseball bat and viciously beating two others. Two years later, the duo were initially sentenced to life in prison but their sentence was reduced to 40 years in 2012 after the Supreme Court ruled that courts cannot sentence minors to life in prison under the mandatory sentencing guidelines.

However, the heightened legal pressure has not reduced incidents of violence against homeless people in Florida. The state recorded 261 violent incidents against homeless people in between 2000 and 2020, which was the second-most in the nation, according to a study from the National Coalition for the Homeless.

One incident the organization highlighted occurred in a Miami Publix where a security guard was filmed beating a homeless man for allegedly stealing a sandwich.

“No one is above the law and no one should act as judge, jury and executioner especially in a matter of a $5 chicken sandwich,” the organization said in a press release.

These attacks don’t happen in a vacuum. Instead, they are bred by these politicians who use “tough on crime” rhetoric to try and scare homeless people into accepting inadequate services and shelter placements.

Antagonists routinely justify their attacks by arguing that the unhoused make them feel unsafe, which is a line that some politicians like New York Mayor Eric Adams and San Francisco Mayor London Breed parrot publicly.


Bathrooms and showers do nothing but sustain homelessness. It keeps folks out on the streets. It does nothing to end it.


To advocates like Eric Tars, senior policy director for the National Homelessness Law Center, there is a clear connection between the dehumanizing rhetoric politicians use and violent acts committed against the unhoused.

“We called attention to the fact that Mayor Adams was using this dehumanizing and provocative rhetoric and aligning himself with folks who are actively trying to create the conditions whereby people can be rounded up, put into camps, arrested, and forced to endure various forms of state-sanctioned violence, as well as tacitly permitting individuals to use vigilante forms of violence against people experiencing homelessness,” Tars told Invisible People, referring to the death of Jordan Neely.

“Other influential leaders, like former President Donald Trump, are committing the same egregious offense,” Tars continued.

When those threats fail, oftentimes vigilantes take matters into their own hands under the guise of protecting their community.

Neely was a 30-year-old Black man who was choked to death by a former marine named Daniel Penny on the New York Subway in May 2023. Penny defended his actions by arguing that other riders felt unsafe in Neely’s presence, CBS4 New York reported.

The Miami Homeless Trust, which leads the Miami-Dade County continuum of care, has played up the service-resistant narrative to oppose policies such as opening more public restrooms in the county.

“Bathrooms and showers do nothing but sustain homelessness. It keeps folks out on the streets. It does nothing to end it,” Ron Book, the chairman of the Miami Homeless Trust, told the Miami New Times in 2020.

Arguments that suggest homeless people are service resistant rely on the assumption that homelessness is a personal or moral failing rather than a social or cultural failure. However, these arguments overlook the fact that most people who become homeless cite relationship issues like losing a loved one or a divorce as the main reason for their homelessness, not their religious or moral affiliations.

This rhetoric can also discourage unhoused people from accepting available shelter and services, according to Crisis, a U.K.-based homeless service nonprofit. For instance, Crisis says many people view homelessness through an individualistic lens that focus on personal or moral failings to explain an individual’s predicament.

Crisis added that advocates should be focusing on addressing the cultural shortcomings and policy gaps that make spells of homelessness last longer than it should in the first place. Some gaps that could be addressed include reducing barriers to enter supportive housing like having an identification or entering a substance abuse treatment program.

Breed implicitly invoked an individualistic framing of homelessness when she said in December about 60% of San Francisco’s unhoused who were contacted by local outreach workers refused services or shelter, The Messenger reported.

“This is why enforcing our laws is important. Our laws are for the health and safety of everyone,” Breed said. “There are public safety challenges around encampments. There are threats of fire.”

However, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California has accused San Francisco of using these arguments to justify using police to remove encampments when services and shelter are not available. This is prohibited under Martin v. Boise, a 2018 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit saying anti-camping ordinances cannot be enforced if there is not enough shelter beds for the unhoused.

Researchers at Colorado University’s Anschutz Medical School found that encampment cleanup operations, sometimes referred to as sweeps, could contribute up to 25% of the deaths of unhoused people who use drugs and are continuously displaced over a 10-year period.

“Yes, we have a serious homelessness problem in San Francisco. But forcing people who have no access to shelter to move from block to block is not the answer,” ACLU senior staff attorney John Do said in a press release.

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