When we see stories of murder and violence in the daily news, our reaction to these events is instinctive, our demands universal. Sympathy for the victims. Outrage at the perps.

But when stories of murder and violence are linked with poverty—specifically when the attackers are poor, not the victims—a whole new mythology comes about. The tragedies become the perfect excuse for social conservatives and their ilk seeking to capitalize on the violence to demonize the poor.

Two recent attacks—one in Toronto and the other in Vancouver—have again put the issue of poverty and violence in the spotlight.

Take, for example, the recent murder of Ross Hammond, 32, a Toronto man who was stabbed three weeks ago during an altercation with four panhandlers.

The media coverage that followed was ugly—not because of any grisly recount of Hammond’s demise, but rather because columnists and their editors used Hammond’s death as an opportunity to demean the urban poor. Toronto Star columnist, Rosie DiManno, spent the week following the attack waxing philosophical about the situation.

In her column on August 18, 2007, DiManno wasted precious few column inches lamenting Hammond’s loss, instead observing “It is impossible to negotiate downtown streets without being constantly accosted by aggressive panhandlers and feral street people.”

“It may be true that some, perhaps the majority, are desperately indigent and mentally ill. But a great many are also transients, drunks and layabouts, well aware that public policy in Toronto is to tolerate abuse out of a misplaced, certainly disproportionate, concern for beggared circumstances.”

The situation is similar in Vancouver. Last month Peter Collins, a 79-year-old church patron, was mugged by a homeless man in a downtown Cathedral. His assailant, 43-year-old Darcy Lance Jones, was apparently unsatisfied with the money Collins gave to him, and has now been charged with one count of robbery.

In regards to Collins’ mugging, Vancouver Police spokesperson Constable Howard Chow commented to CityTV.ca: “I’m to understand that (Jones) touts himself as a bit of a professional panhandler âe¦ He’s well known in the area and he is known to police.”

Comments such as these are not the first times that the media has tried to link ‘social ills’ and violence. The idea that poverty and homelessness routinely elicit a sense of uncontrollable desperation leading panhandlers to become killers echoes the infamous “reefer madness” scare where authorities suggested marijuana use led youth to commit rape and murder. Both arguments over-reach, by miles.

But Toronto Councillor Michael Thompson, who claims he himself was the victim of an assault near Toronto City Hall last year, is calling for a complete city-wide ban on begging (in Toronto, aggressive panhandling is already illegal).

Earlier this year, Toronto Councillor Case Ootes called for a similar bylaw to prohibit panhandling in tourist areas.

Similarly, Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan has launched Project Civil City, aimed at tackling ‘public disorder’ problems in time for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. In a press release describing the initiative, Sullivan lumps the scourge of panhandling in the same category as open drug use.

These fear-based reactions help reinforce the idea that ‘concerned citizens’ should be fearful—and not compassionate for—the inevitable roving bands of drug addicts and panhandlers littering the city streets. Little is mentioned regarding the underlying socio-economic issues that cause poverty—though, to be fair, Sullivan’s report does more in this respect than his Toronto city councillor counterparts.

Social conservatives, in particular, have used these crimes as a ‘stick in the spokes’ of progressives working to defend the urban poor and create awareness about their daily struggles.

In another demeaning article, Toronto Star columnist Rosie DiManno suggests that the rights of panhandlers now trump the rights of ordinary citizens. She mocks homeless advocates who, in the aftermath of the Hammond killing, called on the public not to lose sight of the socio-economic issues at play.

The whisper of sanity can barely be heard over the hysteria. Never mind that it has been repeatedly proven time and again that it is actually the poor who are more likely to be the victims of crime than the perpetrators.

Certainly the death of Hammond and the assault of Collins were tragic. But countless acts of violence—many fatal—are visited upon the urban poor every year.

Where then, for those victims, are the reactions of sympathy? The outrage? The justice?

Sadly, such reactions are all too rare. Consider the August 2005 death of a homeless Toronto man, Paul Croutch. Croutch was bludgeoned on the park bench upon which he regularly slept by three Canadian army reservists—an apparent case of homeless bashing. All three reservists are members of the Queen’s Own Rifles, based at Moss Park Armoury, and all were charged with second-degree murder and assault causing bodily harm.

Gaétan Héroux, an organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), believes that the reaction to the recent Hammond murder should be contrasted against the reaction to Croutch’s death: the first was all frenzy, the latter flat.

“All this frenzy and fear surrounding [Hammond’s] murder by some Toronto politicians is only setting the stage for more bad things to happen, more attacks on the poor,” he warns.

Let me be clear, while I am in no way trying to dismiss the tragedy of any death or grievous injury, I think that all of these events can only be viewed in their context. Absent this context, these crimes serve as fodder for the social conservatives and right-wing pundits in their efforts to revive and reinvigorate a hate-filled backlash against the urban poor.

In a truly ‘civil city’ (to borrow Sam Sullivan’s phrase) the death of an impoverished person is just as tragic as the death of a wealthy one. And the death of a person who sleeps in their own bed each night is no more deserving of hysterics than the death of someone who sleeps on a park bench. In the midst of these tragedies, we cannot lose sight of this, nor can we lose sight of the socio-economic issues that undeniably play a role—at least in part—in these sad tales.

Krystalline Kraus

krystalline kraus is an intrepid explorer and reporter from Toronto, Canada. A veteran activist and journalist for rabble.ca, she needs no aviator goggles, gas mask or red cape but proceeds fearlessly...