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Police in New York and D.C. open a joint probe into shootings of homeless men

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A shooting suspect is now in police custody. He is accused of targeting five people experiencing homelessness in the District of Columbia and New York City. Two men died; three others were hurt in the violent attacks. Reporter Martin Austermuhle from member station WAMU here in Washington joins us now. Martin, there is new information on this story that is unfolding this morning. What can you tell us?

MARTIN AUSTERMUHLE, BYLINE: Yeah, this is very new information. Police in Washington say they arrested a man only hours ago that they say is linked to the five attacks in both cities. He was stopped on a street in southeast Washington and taken into custody, and he is now being questioned by homicide detectives. Now, remember, this all comes less than 12 hours after officials from both cities pleaded with the public to help identify the man. They upped a reward to $70,000 and said they would leave no stone unturned in this joint manhunt and investigation.

MARTIN: So this same person is being accused of these attacks in two different cities. I mean, what else can you tell us about what investigators are looking into about motive?

AUSTERMUHLE: That's the one thing investigators said yesterday, they didn't really understand why this was happening. They didn't have any motive or explanation. They said that the shootings had largely been unprovoked. They happened in the early morning hours. No one was giving any warning that it was going to happen. The same gun was used for the two killings; one was in Washington, the other one was in New York. The one thing officials did actually have, which helped them, was very clear images of the suspect's face, which were caught on multiple surveillance cameras in Washington last week, and they were shared widely yesterday.

MARTIN: So, clearly, these are already vulnerable populations, folks who are living on the street. This, something like these violent attacks, no doubt underscores the challenges with homelessness that a lot of big cities are facing.

AUSTERMUHLE: Yeah, absolutely. And homelessness has been on the rise in many cities, including Washington and New York. And plenty of advocates in the district specifically have told me that as homelessness has become more visible, it's become more dangerous for people experiencing it. They're more likely to become victims of crime. Now, New York Mayor Eric Adams and Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser say and they have said that they've taken every effort to help people get off the streets. But they've both been criticized, Adams for banning unhoused people from sleeping on the subway, and in Washington's case, Mayor Bowser has been criticized for clearing some large homeless encampments. Advocates say these measures are counterproductive and can push people further to the margins where they're even more at risk. Now, homeless advocates like Ceymone Dyce of Pathways to Housing here in Washington told me that these recent attacks highlight some points that they say are critical for the public to understand. This is what she had to say.

CEYMONE DYCE: The cure for homelessness is a home, but in addition, understanding that people living on the streets without a home, they are far more likely to be victims of crime than they are to commit crime.

AUSTERMUHLE: Now, Dyce and other advocates in Washington specifically are pushing the mayor to increase funding for homeless services this week, specifically for housing. And tomorrow, we'll know whether she has listened as she's set to release her proposed budget for the city for the coming year.

MARTIN: Meanwhile, this investigation into these attacks continues. Martin Austermuhle from member station WAMU, we appreciate it. Thank you so much.

AUSTERMUHLE: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Austermuhle is a reporter in WAMU’s newsroom. He covers politics, development, education, social issues, and crime, among other things. Austermuhle joined the WAMU staff in April 2013 as a web producer and reporter. Prior to that, he served as editor-in-chief for DCist.com. He has written for the Washington City Paper, Washington Diplomat and other publications.