LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) — As the population of unhoused people continues to grow across the Southland, so too is the number of violent crimes.
"He was just tired of being asked to leave, so he came randomly one day, charging at me with a, I don't know, a six-foot hard plastic guitar," Jeffrey Hicks, a victim, said.
It was an attack Hicks, who owns a laundromat in Valley Village, said he saw coming.
"I was so intent on making sure he didn't hit me over the head that my first reaction was to defend myself," he said.
Hicks was able to fight back with a stool and was unharmed, but several others who live and work in the North Hollywood area have not been so lucky.
Recently, a man was on his way to grab some food when police said two transients cornered him and one slashed his neck. In another attack, police said a man sitting on a bus was stabbed in the neck and stomach by an unhoused man with mental illness. And security video shows a convenience store worker being chased and threatened by a man, who police said was unhoused, holding a club.
"The most alarming thing I'm seeing, it's just the random nature of it," Det. Daniel Fournier said. "These are people that are just walking down the street, the victims, just minding their own business and they get attacked for absolutely no reason."
According to a Los Angeles Police Department crime analysis from the North Hollywood area, transient robberies jumped 40% and transient aggravated assaults were up 30% in just one year.
And while those stats are concerning, detectives said they were even more alarmed by the fact that in the past month, almost 70% of the crimes were random in nature.
"A reason for a lot of these random type attacks is these people are usually high on meth and they're delusional," he said. "Because of that delusion, they're thinking that something's going on that's not, and they think our potential victim is part of that delusion and they attack them."
Fournier, who works in LAPD's North Hollywood Station said the unhoused residents they've arrested for aggravated assault tend to have one thing in common: drug abuse.
Addiction experts believe drug addiction and mental illness are often intertwined. According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority's 2020 Homeless Count, 32% of unsheltered respondents reported substance abuse and 26% said they have long-term mental health conditions.
"It's almost a lawless society," Officer Jeffrey Winters said. "They get to do their drugs, they get to go off on their tangents, and they get to live without any rules."
Winters took CBS Los Angeles out to an encampment in North Hollywood, where reporter Rachel Kim met 35-year-old Johnny Haskins.
"I've been addicted my whole life," he said. "I started using methamphetamines at like 12 years old."
Haskins, who is unhoused battles drug addiction and mental health issues. He knows first-hand that meth use causes psychosis, which can lead to delusions, hallucinations, paranoia and violent behavior.
"Some people with psychosis, they hear voices, some people hear voices and those voices, I know one individual that voices tell him to stab you, he will stab you and that's for no reason whatsoever," Haskins said. "My personal psychosis is I see my baby mama and child everywhere."
Law enforcement officials said when California lowered penalties for drug possession and got rid of the chance for courts to offer rehab instead of incarceration, there was an increase in homelessness and crime among unhoused residents.
Fournier said he believes untreated mental illness and drug addiction among the unhoused population is a major public safety issue and said there will likely be more random and violent assaults if drug and other non-violent offenses are not taken more seriously.
"You get arrested, you have zero bail, so you're right back out," he said. "Your arraignment for that crime is six months later.
"Right now, they're doing no time for misdemeanors, especially non-violent misdemeanors," he continued. "So they ... can keep getting caught over and over with meth, heroin, with whatever drug and there's absolutely zero consequences."
The man who attacked Hicks got out of jail just two days after he was arrested.
"Now he's literally back on the streets," Hicks said. "I don't know when he's going to come in. I don't know when he's going to come in with what next, a knife?"
Fournier said that without having to face consequences, those struggling with addiction are not going to get the help they need.
"Things have gotten worse," Hicks said. "And eventually, it's going to happen to you or someone you know."
Many advocates believe there needs to be a bigger push to get those with serious mental illness and substance abuse issues off the streets and into permanent supportive housing that provides access to recovery, case management and lifelong treatment.
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