Videos of homeless people being beaten or forced into humiliating acts are increasingly popular online, leading some US lawmakers to seek harsher penalties for hate crimes against the poor.
"They have become a new minority group that is okay to hate. If this would have happened to any other minority group, there would be some boycotts or protests," said National Coalition for the Homeless director Michael Stoops.
Twenty-seven homeless people were killed in 2008 out of a total of 106 attacks, with the bulk committed by males who were 25 or younger, according to a report published earlier this month by the NCH.
The total number of attacks was less than the 160 recorded last year but still far higher than the 60 listed a decade ago. More incidents are thought to have occurred but gone unreported.
On the Internet, videos of "bum fights" are a growing trend, with their authors defending the practice just for the "fun" or the "thrill."
In July, nearly 86,000 degrading videos of homeless people were posted on YouTube --- 15,000 more than a year earlier -- according to an NCH count.
No less than 5,700 of the posts -- 1,400 more than in April 2008 -- showed self-proclaimed "bum fights," where the homeless were pushed to battle each order in return for a pack of beers or a few dollars, but also to the amusement of those shooting the videos or watching them.
"This is exploiting people when they are at their lowest point," said Andrew Davis, who used to live on the streets in the nation's capital, Washington.
"Right now, the homeless have no voice. We need to prevent these things and the community has to be vigilant," the 44-year old told AFP as he stood by dozens of homeless receiving a free meal.
The trend began in 2001, with videos showing fights or urging homeless people to jump into a trash bin from up high. Some 6.8 million similar videos have been sold on DVD since then.
Some accept the humiliation because "they are alcoholic, they are mentally disabled, have no money," explained Stoops. "They are bribed: if you jump or let us push you in a shopping cart, we will give you five dollars or a pack of beer."
Davis compared the practice to dog fights.
"It often happens with drug dealers," he said.
"They have money to throw away, they either pay the guy with crack, heroin, or weed or a drink, they pay to fight and bet on the fight," he said.
Each night, 672,000 people sleep under a roof that is not their own in the United States, the National Alliance to End Homelessness says. Between 2.5 and 3.5 million sleep on the streets or in a shelter at least once a year.
Out of the nearly 3,000 homeless living in Washington, according to official figures -- though homeless advocates say the number is at least twice that -- one-third say they have been victims of violence.
Close to the Watergate apartment complex, known for a political scandal that led to the resignation of former president Richard Nixon, Yoshio Nakada, 61, was murdered in his sleep on Christmas Eve last year after suffering what police believe were hatchet blows that split his skull.
A 25,000-dollar reward has been posted for information about who may have been responsible for his death.
In April 2008, a 16-year-old beat Brian Michael Myers, 49, to death with an aluminum baseball bat in Glen Burnie, Maryland, just outside Washington.
Stoops said that in the 10 years his group has been tracking crimes against the homeless, 95 percent of the perpetrators were found to be men, most under the age of 25. They came from all economic classes and the vast majority -- 85 percent -- were white.
Faced with the scourge of violence, some states are taking measures. In October, Maryland is set to expand its hate crimes law to increase for the first time the penalties for attacks against the homeless.
Five states are considering similar measures, while the District of Columbia (Washington) approved such legislation earlier this month. A bill tackling the spate of attacks is also under consideration in Congress.