The killer police say targeted homeless people in New York City and Washington D.C. is part of a disturbing trend: A growing number of unhoused people being murdered in the city.

The New York Police Department reported Tuesday morning that the man they believe has shot at least five homeless people in New York City and Washington D.C. since March 3 — killing two — has been arrested in Washington D.C. They had not released further details Tuesday morning.

Data compiled by city agencies shows that the killings are part of a larger pattern. Since 2018, the number of homeless people killed in New York City has increased 300 percent. Seven people were killed that year, 10 in 2019, then 11 in 2020, and finally 22 in the last fiscal year. It’s a trend that homeless advocates told The Washington Post holds true nationally, though there is no definitive national data.

Advocates say the violence may be fed by a perception that homeless people are a nuisance or threat to the public. In New York, high-profile incidents of violence on the subway, including the death of a woman pushed to her death by a homeless and mentally ill man, recently led Mayor Eric Adams to announce that police would move homeless people out of the transit system. The NYPD added about 1,000 officers to patrol the subways.

“In the past few years we’ve certainly seen an increase in dehumanizing language and scapegoating and stigmatization of people who are without housing, and that sort of discourse and message certainly fuels violence against a community,” said Jacquelyn Simone, policy director at New York’s Coalition for the Homeless. “As people are remaining homeless longer than ever before because of the dearth of affordable housing, every night that people are homeless and without housing is another night that their lives are at risk.”

Murder still accounts for a small percentage of homeless people’s deaths overall. Last year 640 people experiencing homelessness died — the highest number of deaths recorded since tracking began in fiscal year 2006, when 162 deaths were reported. Drug-related deaths were the leading cause, spiking 81% from 2020.

Donald Whitehead Jr., executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said he believes the violence may be tied to communities cracking down on unhoused people.

“When people talk about homelessness in a negative way, we see these things start to happen. And I think it’s a continued villainization of poor people that has led to an incredible amount of violence,” he said.

Woodhead said there’s a growing number of cities confiscating tents and other belongings of the unhoused. He called it a “draconian” response.

“There’s not enough shelter beds for people in New York City or any other city in the United States for the number of people who are experiencing homelessness,” he said. “So simply moving people from one place to another does not solve their homelessness.” He said abandoned buildings should be utilized to house those who don’t have shelter.

But “every time a shelter is announced in a neighborhood, you hear horrific things said about homeless people in public forums,” said Simone, of the Coalition for the Homeless. Simone connected the recent violence against the unhoused to the public discourse in New York, which portrays homeless people as criminals and an affront to the quality of life of housed people instead of as an indictment of the failure of the social safety net.

“If the people who were attacked this weekend had housing, they would not have been shot. If they had been behind a door that locked, we would not be talking about this right now,” he said.

The most recent survey of homelessness released by the federal government, conducted in January 2021, shows a fifth of those living in shelters nationwide were in New York City — nearly 66,000 people. A study in 2014 found that nearly half of homeless individuals said they had experienced violence.

Despite the growing numbers, violence against New York’s homeless population is not new. In 2019, Randy Santos was charged with murdering four homeless men in Chinatown and critically injuring a fifth. Police said he bludgeoned them to death with a long metal pipe.

Last November, a resident of a building on the Lower East Side allegedly set a fire to the pants of an unsheltered man who often slept in the stairwell. The flames engulfed the victim’s body, killing him; the alleged arsonist was arrested. Also in November, a popular street soccer player who was apparently living in shelters and the subway was stabbed to death while sleeping on a No. 2 train pulling into Penn Station; a suspect was arrested a few weeks later.

In May, Lukasz Ruszczyk, who was living under train tracks in Queens, was allegedly killed by another homeless man in a scuffle that turned deadly. He died less than a half-mile from his family’s home, The Daily News reported. And in February 2021, a homeless man admitted to police that he stabbed four other unhoused people, killing two — a man and a woman — in separate incidents on the A train over a 12-hour span.