Push to Include the Homeless in Hate Crime Laws

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Advocates want the homeless to be included as a protected class in federal hate crime laws.

They say such a step could help reduce violent and sometimes fatal attacks on homeless individuals by housed persons, and they  are using the grim findings from a new compilation of murders and assaults to help drive home their point.

“Adding homeless people to existing hate crime statutes sends both a symbolic and practical message that violence against the homeless will no longer be tolerated,” said Michael Stoops, director of community organizing for the National Coalition for the Homeless(NCH). “And if you do attack someone because they are homeless, you can be charged with a second offense and face stiffer penalties.”

The federal government defines a hate crime as a crime committed against a person or property which is motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender’s bias against race, gender, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or gender identity.

Nationally in 2012, there were 18 fatal attacks on homeless individuals and 10 homicides classified as hate crimes, according to the report “Senseless Violence: A Survey of Hate Crimes and Violence Against the Homeless.”

The report includes a range of  violent crimes: murder, non-negligent manslaughter, rape, sexual assault, police brutality, and assault with a deadly weapon. It is a compilation of accounts drawn from many sources: homeless advocates and service providers, self-reports and published news reports.

The vulnerability of the victims was highlighted by the headlines that ran with some of the stories:  “Serial killer targets homeless people and views it as public service,” “Homeless woman set on fire,” and “Police officers shoot homeless man.”

There  are some groups opposed to expanding the protections of hate crime laws to include the homeless.

An official from the Anti-Defamation League, for example, said in an interview with National Public Radio (NPR) that there needs to be a better definition of homeless and an understanding of whether homelessness might be seen as an unchangeable characteristic like the other characteristics protected under hate crime laws.

“What is  the definition of homeless? What is immutable about homeless? Is it an immutable characteristic? Is it exactly the same as race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender?” asked Michael Lieberman, the Washington counsel for the Anti-Defamation League.

“It is different.”

The arguments for and against a change have been discussed in Congress.  Since 2007,  four separate bills seeking to protect the homeless under hate crime legislation have been introduced in the House of Representatives. Three have died in committee. The most recent bill, the Violence Against the Homeless Accountability Act of 2013, is sponsored by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX).

“Violence against the homeless is a serious issue. . . however, homeless individuals are sometimes denied the same protections under the law as other Americans,” Johnson said in an email. “My bill would allow the federal government to begin collecting statistics on the number of these attacks so that local and state law enforcement can properly act to curb such violence.”

The bill, which has 14 co-sponsors including  Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), is now in the hands of the House Judiciary Committee. So far, no action has been taken and no hearing has been scheduled. The bill will expire when the Congressional session ends at the end of the year.Projections show the bill has a 7 percent chance of getting past committee, and a 1 percent chance of being enacted, which is slightly less than the average bill.

Johnson, who is co-chair and co-founder of the Congressional Caucus on Homelessness, said the majority of support for the bill has come from House Democrats and that it has failed to garner support from House Republicans.

“Mainly, the opposition stems from expanding the scope of protections against hate crimes.  It has been a challenge trying to overcome these ideological differences,” Johnson said by email.

Changes have already been made on the local level, however. Within the last five years, legislators in Washington, D.C. and in Maryland have adopted laws that protect the homeless population and their property from bias-related crimes and require that data of bias-related crimes be collected.

The District’s Metropolitan Police Department reported no cases in 2012 where the motive for a violent crime was proven to be that the victim was homeless. Since the District’s hate crime law was changed in 2009, there has only been one case where it was proven that a bias crime against a homeless person occurred.

While there may be room for ongoing discussion about changes in federal law, the numbers reflected by NCH are stark.

In the 14 years since the NCH began compiling cases, the number of crimes against homeless people that resulted in death is almost triple the number of overall hate crimes that resulted in death, the organization has found. Efforts were made to evaluate and verify the accuracy of all information, according to NCH. In the cases included in the report, the victim was experiencing homelessness and the perpetrator was not.

In the new report, the overwhelming majority of accused and convicted offenders were males under the age of 30. In all of the violent crimes committed across the country against the homeless by housed individuals, 50 percent of perpetrators were under the age of 20, and 96 percent were males. In an effort to educate young people about the factors that perpetuate homelessness and to humanize the issue,  the NCH runs The Faces of Homelessness Speakers’ Bureau.

“The bureau gives the homeless and formerly homeless an opportunity to tell their stories and interact with young people at schools and youth centers in hopes of breaking stereotypes and misconceptions of homelessness,” Stoops said. “It’s the most positive interactive tool we have in addressing the homeless hate crime issue amongst young people.”

In some communities, assailants may act out of a sense that homeless people are fair game, a view that may be encouraged by restrictive laws and policies that amount to a kind of  “criminalization” of homelessness,  according to the NCH.

“We support legislation but we also know that community education is equally as important,” Stoops said.

Sidebar information

The report “Senseless Violence: A Survey of Hate Crimes and Violence Against the Homeless”  found that nationally:

  • There were 88 violent attacks on homeless individuals by housed persons

  • 18 victims were killed

  • 88 percent of the victims were males

  • 50 percent of perpetrators were under the age of 20.

  • 96 percent of perpetrators were males

  • 73 percent of victims were 40 years of age or older

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