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Professor publishes book on the homeless

Anna Boarini | Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Whenever a serious crime is committed, members of the surrounding community are plagued by burning questions regarding who is responsible, why the incident occurred and how it could have been prevented.

In his new book “Homeless Come Home: An Advocate, the Riverbank, and Murder in Topeka, Kansas,” professor Benedict Giamo examined these complex questions in the context of the story of David Owen, an advocate for the homeless who was brutally murdered in 2006 by members of the community he aimed to help.

Giamo has studied homelessness since the 1970s, but he was drawn to Owen’s story by the blurred line between victim and perpetrator.

“Most of the time, the homeless are the victims, and in this case they were the perpetrators,” he said. “But the victim also had a hand in his own death.”

Giamo’s interest in Owen’s murder also stemmed from the interesting relationships between the story’s broad issues and diverse characters, he said.

“[The book] is about homelessness, it is about social justice and it is about disability,” Giamo said. “It raises these broader issues and tries to do it in an engaging manner through creative nonfiction to give an account as truthful to the crime, to the setting and to the characters as can be.”

In researching and writing his book, Giamo wanted to find out why someone who had professed his life to helping the homeless would reach his demise at their hands.

Giamo said Owen was a fascinating yet polarizing character in his desire to reunite the homeless with their families through somewhat questionable tactics.

“Owen wanted them [the homeless] to call their families and reconnect, but he would get in their faces and be aggressive,” he said. “If the homeless resisted, he would even go so far as to trash their encampments.”

An encounter between Owen and four residents of a homeless encampment ultimately led to his death. Owen was speaking to the group in hopes of encouraging them to reconnect with their families, but the conversation eventually took on a negative tone, Giamo said.

“When Owen would trash homeless encampments, he would photograph the before and after,” Giamo said. “On that particular day, he had those pictures in his satchel and they [the homeless perpetrators] found the pictures and burned them.”

Owen was brutally beaten and lynched, and his body was found several weeks later, Giamo said. Four homeless individuals were eventually convicted of felony murder and kidnapping in the wake of Owen’s death.

Members of the Topeka community characterized Owen for his difficult personality during their interviews with Giamo, he said, but the city’s residents also recognized Owen’s passion for and dedication to advocacy for the homeless.

“He was extremely committed to the point that he gave his life, but that was always followed by a sense of fanaticism,” Giamo said.

“Homeless Come Home” is available for purchase through the University of Notre Dame Press.