Attacks On Homeless Increasing In US

by Gopalan on Aug 9 2009 1:46 PM

Attacks on the homeless is on the increase in the US, says, the National Coalition for the Homeless. Some states are considering treating such attacks as hate crimes, which would invite severe punishment. 

The Coalition's report, Hate, Violence, And Death on Main Street USA, 2008,  said that the total number of attacks for 2008 stood at 106, and the fatal was second highest since 2001, at 27 deaths. 73 percent of the attacks were committed by individuals who were ages 25 and younger and Florida ranked #1 for the fourth year in a row for most attacks and California second.

“Those experiencing homelessness are often ignored or misunderstood by society.  If these brutal attacks were committed against any other religious or minority group to the same degree, there would be a national outcry and call for governmental action,” said Michael Stoops, executive director of NCH. “We must respond to this dehumanization and protect homeless persons against hate crimes and violence.”

Over the past ten years, hundreds of homeless people have been attacked and killed. While this report provides alarming numbers, the fact remains that countless attacks go undocumented each year. Homeless individuals are treated so poorly by society that their attacks are often forgotten or unreported. Knowing some cases are missing, the attacks that are accounted for over the past ten years are still shocking:

880 acts of violence have been committed against homeless individuals

The attacks have happened in 46 states, Puerto Rico and Washington, DC

244 homeless individuals lost their lives in the brutal attacks

The 42 percent of homeless people who are unsheltered are the most vulnerable to these attacks. Because crimes committed against homeless persons often go unreported, the actual numbers of non-lethal attacks may be much higher.

Disturbingly, the perpetrators of the attacks  are more likely to be young men and teen aged boys. Over the past ten years, the majority of attacks against the homeless have been committed by teenage boys and youth as young as ten years old.

In 2008:

43% of attacks against homeless people were committed by teens aged 13-19

73% of the accused/convicted attackers were ages 25 and younger

Samples of headlines from the report showcase the violence and horror of the crimes endured by the homeless:

16 Year-old Boy Beats Homeless Man to Death with Baseball Bat

Homeless Veteran Killed in Middle of Marketplace During the Day

Homeless Man Robbed and Set on Fire

Homeless Men Violently Harassed with Chainsaw on Numerous Occasion

Homeless Man Beaten with Nail Studded Board

Twin Brothers Terrorize Homeless Community  

The victims of these attacks have faced injustices greater than the scars and pain they endure; they have had to cope with humiliation, tattered self-esteem, and battered respect for themselves as humans.

People who are homeless are more vulnerable to attacks because they live outside in public spaces. Most of our communities do not have adequate, affordable housing or shelter space to meet the need, leaving many homeless people to live outside.

In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 41.8% of our homeless population is unsheltered. Undoubtedly, this percentage is higher as current economic issues have brought about high unemployment (9.5%) and foreclosure rates (up 18% from January 2008). Without proper action to deal with the crisis of homelessness as a whole, our homeless neighbors will continue to be vulnerable to brutal attacks, points out the Coalition.

Some cities and states have taken action to address the hate and violence faced by our homeless neighbors. This report highlights: positive steps being taken around the country to combat the growing trend of attacking the homeless, recommendations for advocates, policy makers, and members of the public to help end the violence faced by homeless persons.

While some cities and states have taken positive steps, there are still many parts of the United States that continue to dehumanize homeless persons by creating and enforcing laws that criminalize their homeless status. These laws contain restrictions on sitting, sleeping, storing property, or asking for money in public spaces. Laws that criminalize the homeless encourage the belief that homeless persons are not human, are unworthy of respect, and attacks against the homeless will go unnoticed.

Some of the accused/convicted have been quoted as saying: “It was just a vagrant”, “it was fun”, or they did it because they “could”. The motives to all attacks are not all clear, but it is obvious that many attacks were committed because the victim was homeless or because the homeless are more vulnerable than housed individuals. In addition, the perpetrators’ characteristics, motive, and weaponry are very similar to perpetrators who commit hate crimes against all other hate crime victim groups, says the report. 

It is in such a backdrop that Maryland has decided to expand its hate-crime law to add stiffer penalties for attacks on the homeless.

At least five other states are pondering similar steps, the District of Columbia approved such a measure this week, and a like bill was introduced last week in Congress.

The harsh reality is that some like the homeless of the Las Vegas resort to living in a maze of underground flood channels beneath the Strip. There they face flash floods, disease, black widows and dank, pitch-dark conditions, but some tunnel dwellers say life there is better than being harassed and threatened by assailants and the police.

“Out there, anything goes,” said Manny Lang, who has lived in the tunnels for months, recalling the stones and profanities with which a group of teenagers pelted him last winter when he slept above ground. “But in here, nothing’s going to happen to us.”

“The bottom line is, people need to be housed," said David Pirtle, a victim of violence and NCH Board member. "If the federal government adequately funds permanent affordable housing, fewer people will be on the streets, and fewer men and women will be attacked."

The Coalition report recommends -

Supporting state legislative efforts to add homeless persons as a protected class to state hate crime statutes.

Initiating police trainings to help law enforcement officers better understand homelessness in general and how to prevent and manage hate crime against homeless persons.

Engaging in public education initiatives in schools to educate young people about homelessness and to humanize homeless neighbors.

Advocating against city measures that criminalize homelessness and for more constructive approaches to homelessness.

Advocating for more affordable housing and permanent supportive housing to bring an end to homelessness for those homeless members of our communities.