There’s something distinctly gut-wrenching about watching the final moments of a stranger’s life via surveillance footage. Perhaps it’s the crushing realization that there are many things we will never know about them – what their dreams were, where they’d like to travel someday, how they met their best friend – and yet, we know exactly what they were doing and how they looked just moments before someone brutally took their life.
Christina Yuna Lee, a 35-year-old digital producer for an online music platform, was found stabbed to death in her own New York City apartment in the early hours of February 13. Released footage would reveal that Lee had been followed into the building she’d lived in for less than a year and quietly stalked up the six flights of stairs to her apartment by Assamad Nash, a homeless man. When she opened the door, he forced his way in and stabbed her up to 40 times. It was Lee’s screams that ultimately prompted a neighbor to call 911. According to prosecutor, Dafna Yoran, when police arrived and began knocking at the door, Nash’s voice, seemingly mimicking a woman’s tone, told them, “‘We don’t need the police here — go away.’”
Indeed, it’s devastating that we’ll never know Lee as her colleague did who bonded with her over last year’s Atlanta spa shootings – wherein six Asian women were killed — and a mutual passion for making the music industry more inclusive, though little information is needed to understand that she was, as he said, “irreplaceable.” Grappling with Lee’s murder is just as daunting as considering the fact that someday, that woman on the surveillance footage, returning home from a night out, waiting for the train or bus to arrive or simply doing her job, could be you.
Lee’s is just one of many similar cases in the last month. In January, over just three days, three women in both New York City and Los Angeles were murdered by men of a similar profile to Nash: homeless with a history of criminal offenses, and in some cases, suffering from varying and unidentified mental illnesses. Michelle Alyssa Go, a 40-year-old finance executive, was waiting for a train when she was pushed out onto the tracks at random by a man who’d later claim he was “God.” In Los Angeles, Sandra Shells, a 70-year-old nurse, was brutally attacked while waiting for a bus and Brianna Kupfer, a 24-year-old student was stabbed to death during her shift at a furniture store.
While not all homeless people have a history of violence, and many are victims themselves, these killings fit a pattern that’s become increasingly common during the pandemic in New York City and Los Angeles: a seemingly unprovoked assault in which the perpetrator is a homeless man with a history of mental illness, a criminal record or both. Much has been made about the rise in crime across major cities over the last year, and while a fair percentage of it certainly gives way to fear-mongering — especially as it pertains to homelessness, mental or emotional illness and racism — statistically, violent crime has increased in both major cities. And since the start of 2022, the bulk of crime stories with a national impact happen to detail deeply unsettling violence against women and femmes – particularly those who are Black and AAPI women.
Meanwhile, homelessness in New York City has reached the highest levels since the Great Depression, a staggering 20 percent higher than it was a decade ago. Los Angeles has also experienced rates described as “catastrophic” and is bracing for further increases.
There seems to be an obvious connection between the rise in crime and the disturbing state of homelessness in both major cities, and yet, only housing justice activists and advocacy groups appear to be connecting the dots. The police budgets in NYC and LA are $5.5 billion and $1.9 billion, respectively — perhaps some of that money could address the economic inequality contributing to the crime rates?
Jacquelyn Simone, the Policy Director at the Coalition for the Homeless, recently told The Independent that the health services many homeless and displaced individuals rely on have been overwhelmed by the pandemic — with many switching to a telemedicine model — thus, those most vulnerable and with limited access to health care and substance abuse services are struggling more than ever. “The bottom line is that we clearly have a historic housing crisis in the US and the pandemic has highlighted that vulnerability in the housing system,” Simone said. “We know that housing is an impactful way to address homelessness and mental illness so it would significantly improve everyone’s public safety if we helped everyone get this stability.”
In these moments of widespread shock and grief, it’s simple to call on the further criminalization of perpetrators like Nash. But as we’ve seen time and again relying solely on police to operate with any nuance or effectivity — especially in the cases of murdered, assaulted or abused women (see Lauren Smith Fields) — is not only irresponsible, it’s futile. If we have any true intention of preventing against another irreplaceable woman or femme being murdered, there first must be an emphasis on expanding access to housing, proper health care and other social services, particularly for the mentally ill.
Of course, there’s no telling whether it would’ve been enough to save Christina Yuna Lee or Michelle Alyssa Go or any other recent victim. But if a police budget of over a billion dollars can’t solve the problem, why can’t other solutions be attempted or at the very least, imagined?