As is the case for most cities, vagrancy is a cyclical problem in Mobile, but local police have taken a more proactive role since a homeless man was charged with a brutal assault and attempted rape that occurred in broad daylight in downtown last month.
Douglas Dunson Jr., a 43-year-old homeless man, is accused of beating and attempting to rape a young woman in an RSA parking garage in the morning hours of June 5. He was arrested the same day and charged with second-degree assault and first-degree attempted rape.
Following the attack, city spokeswoman Laura Byrne told Lagniappe addressing homelessness, especially in the downtown area, is “definitely a priority” for Mayor Sandy Stimpson — one that appears to have become higher in the wake of the assault.
“[Homelessness] is an important issue that affects downtown, and this incident will be taken into account as we address homelessness in the future,” Byrne said.
It isn’t uncommon for the Mobile Police Department and law enforcement outside the city to arrest homeless individuals. While homelessness isn’t a criminal offense, Mobile currently has city ordinances on the books that prohibit open panhandling in public spaces.
According to Mobile County Metro Jail records, there appears to have been a slight uptick in the number of homeless persons arrested in Mobile following last month’s reported assault.
Based on a Lagniappe review, 35 inmates were arrested during the month of May who listed their address as “homeless.” The offenses ranged from public intoxication, open beverage violations and trespassing to domestic violence, drug possession and burglary.
Several were arrested in the downtown area, though other arrests were made throughout Mobile County. Some of the inmates listed as homeless were arrested on more than one occasion during the same time period for similar misdemeanor offenses.
In June, the number of homeless individuals arrested in the Mobile area rose to 43, and in more than one instance as many as six suspects were arrested at the same time. In late June, officers arrested six men found trespassing overnight at the GulfQuest Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico.
Mobile Public Safety Director Jim Barber said that increase isn’t a coincidence, adding that MPD has stepped up its patrols as well as its visible presence in the downtown area over the past few weeks. However, he rejected the notion that MPD officers are “targeting the homeless.”
“It’s not illegal to be homeless, but it is illegal to be a sex offender who fails to register, to pee on the sidewalk or to aggressively panhandle and harass folks downtown,” Barber said. “The assault last month really created a heightened sense of paranoia downtown and really scared a lot of women who live and work in the area. So, we began a sweep looking for those committing crimes.”
One crime the area’s homeless are commonly charged with is trespassing, which is also a frequent complaint from business owners and pedestrians. Barber said police don’t just arrest anyone who appears homeless, though. He said most suspects are often given a warning.
“If you’re warned to stay off somebody’s property and you return to that property, you can be arrested, but if there’s a business with a ‘no loitering’ policy and they have people hanging around there it’s usually just a warning,” Barber said. “However, if the property owner calls us back and we see them return, that arrest is made. Also, if the business owner has already warned a trespasser and wants to sign a complaint against them, they can also be arrested.”
According to Barber, the increased patrols in the downtown area serve two purposes: to provide a “visible police enforcement” and to make sure wanted criminals and “aggressive” panhandlers aren’t harassing visitors in the downtown entertainment district.
Barber said that does not exclusively mean the homeless, either.
“Sometimes those individuals aggressively panhandling aren’t necessarily homeless but might have issues with mental health or substance abuse,” he added. “Since the assault, we’ve also had meetings with RSA improving their security measures because we’re trying to make sure we’re doing everything to ensure people’s safety and to make them feel safer downtown.”