LOS ANGELES (AP) — Charles Barfield, living on the streets for the past five years, doesn't trust anyone.
Armed with a pocketknife, he beds down in a doorway in downtown LA every night, making sure no one's nearby. "People might look normal, but they do weird ... things," said the ponytailed 58-year-old who sells loose cigarettes for a quarter.
As police and advocates urged homeless people to seek safety in shelters on Friday as news spread of an at-large serial homeless stabber, they face the challenge that many street dwellers like being alone because they feel it's less risky or simply because they can't cope with people due to mental illness.
With robberies, assaults or even rapes frequently occurring on the streets and in shelters, many homeless people have found that survival comes down to finding hidey-holes where no one can see them. But advocates for the homeless say that's also what makes them easy marks for criminals looking for victims in general or homeless people specifically.
"People on the street know it's dangerous, but many people want to be on their own," said Herb Smith, president and chief executive of the Los Angeles Mission in Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. "They're not socialized. It's part of their condition."
Warnings about the hazards of sleeping on the street were stepped up while police continued to hunt the perpetrator who recently knifed two homeless men and a woman in the back in the early morning hours as they slept. The first stabbing occurred July 3 in downtown Los Angeles, the only incident where a witness saw a suspect fleeing.
The second incident on Tuesday targeted a man as he slept on a bus bench in Santa Monica. The most recent was on Thursday, when a woman was stabbed in Hollywood. All three victims, who are in their 50s, survived.
Typewritten notes labeled "death warrants" were left at all three scenes. The notes were signed "David Ben Keyes," a name that police on Friday discovered was fake. Police said the man's real name is Courtney Anthony Robinson, and described him as possibly homeless and recently arrived in Los Angeles from Santa Barbara.
Police are seeking to question the man as a "person of interest." He is not a suspect at this time.
"We're not sure what his connection is," said Lt. Andy Neiman.
Shelters in downtown Los Angeles' Skid Row, the nation's densest concentration of homeless where more than 1,000 people sleep on sidewalks nightly, were taking the threat seriously.
"We're all on high alert," said Georgia Berkovich, spokeswoman for the Midnight Mission, where an extra room was being prepared in case more people turned up for beds Friday night.
The mission distributed news stories about the stabbings and photos of the man being sought to all staff and security guards, while nearby Union Rescue Mission posted fliers around its premises, made an announcement during lunch and spread warnings along with bottled water at its mid-afternoon "water walk."
If people don't want to come into shelters, they are being urged to form small groups to sleep on the streets at night.
Men are more often more challenging to reach than women, who must deal with the added threat of sexual assault and seek shelters or buddy up for that reason, advocates said.
"The men tend to be very much loners. They find it much more difficult to congregate," Smith said.
Skid Row residents took the news of a serial stabber in stride, saying they are already used to taking precautions to protect themselves from the fistfights, knifings and sexual assaults that commonly occur in the area.
"It happens all the time and in the day," said Theresa Esogbue, who said she had been raped and mugged twice.
Esogbue, who said she was in her 40s, said she sleeps in shelters and seeks out the company of other women, but has learned to be wary of everyone.
"I keep to myself," she said. "I don't have a lot of friends here."
Most crimes against the homeless are committed by other homeless people, while crimes by outsiders have typically been one-time actions by hooligans in pursuit of thrills, said Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless.
Serial crimes, however, seem to have turned into a trend over the past year, he said, noting the stabbing murders of four homeless people in Orange County, Calif., last December and January. One man has been charged with those killings.
"We haven't seen this before," Donovan said.
He noted that homeless face tough decisions when it comes to safety.
"It's a very violent lifestyle and sometimes you're at the point where you only trust yourself," he said. "The best answer to get them off the streets."