Tara Cole, who had been living on the streets of Nashville for more than three years, spent her last night alive sleeping on a boat ramp along the Cumberland River.
She was killed in the early hours of Aug. 11, when two men pushed her into the river, according to witnesses. Other homeless people couldn't save her. The men have not been identified.
"She was one person, but it terrorized the whole homeless population," said Howard Allen, a homeless man who has helped organize a nightly vigil for Cole.
Authorities said that the fatal attack was unprovoked, and homeless advocates say such violence is on the rise across the nation. Often the attackers are teenagers or young adults who are more affluent than their victims, experts say.
A report last year by the National Coalition for the Homeless recorded 86 violent attacks on homeless people last year compared with 60 in 1999. Those numbers are likely low because they only reflect attacks that have been documented in public records, said Michael Stoops, executive director of the Washington-based coalition.
Stoops said that in the 1980s attacks appeared to plague only big cities on the East Coast and West Coast. Now, the coalition has documented incidents in 165 cities nationwide, 42 states and Puerto Rico.
"I think they do it for thrills. I think they think they can get away with it, that the homeless won't fight back, that no one will care, that the police won't pay any attention to them," Stoops said.
In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, a teenager beat a homeless man to death and pelted his body with paintballs in January. Another homeless man was beat to death in March in Orlando, Florida, and five juveniles have been arrested in the case.
In February, the National Coalition for the Homeless asked the US Government Accountability Office to conduct a study of violence against the homeless, although it has not responded, Stoops said.
The increase in violence may be loosely linked to the increasing popularity of so-called Bumfights videos and imitation videos which show homeless people fighting one another and performing dangerous stunts, he said.
Four producers of the Bumfights videos pleaded guilty in June 2003 to charges of conspiracy to stage an illegal fight for their videos.
A 20-year-old man in Los Angeles has been convicted for beating two homeless men with a baseball bat in August last year after watching a Bumfights video.
Internet site Bumfights.com, which sells the videos, says their purpose is to call attention to poverty and violence.
"Please do not miss the point of these videos! Educate yourself. Help those who are less fortunate. Spread love not hate," it says.
Not all heed the warning. The Web site includes one viewer commenting: "Let the idiots kill each other for my amusement."
In cases where the perpetrator of attacks on homeless people is known, 76 percent are people 25 or younger, Stoops said. About 80 percent of attackers are white, he said.
"This might give an immature or drunk or high young adult encouragement to attack homeless people," Stoops said. "Were they to do this to any other minority group, there would be a national outcry."
In Nashville, Police Commander Andy Garrett said there was no reason for panic. Violence among homeless people in his city was more common than random violence against them, he said.