Every once in awhile, we read about some act of violence against a homeless person. Young men set fire to a homeless man. A teenager beats a homeless man to death with a baseball bat. Twin brothers terrorize homeless people in a public park–a woman thrown down a flight of stairs, a sleeping man pounded with his own bicycle, another stabbed.
As NCH readily acknowledges, its data are incomplete, based on news articles and reports from advocates, service providers and homeless and formerly homeless people themselves. But they’re still enough to give one pause.
- In 2008 alone, 106 homeless people were subject to violent attacks, 27 of them fatal.
- These attacks occurred in 22 states and the District of Columbia.
- They included shootings, beatings, rapes, other assaults and at least three human torchings.
- Victims were predominantly middle-aged and elderly. Of those whose attackers were formally accused, 17.3% were in their 50’s and 10.9% were over 60.
The NCH data are just the tip of the iceberg. Homeless people are understandably reluctant to call the police. And law enforcement authorities don’t have to keep records identifying crimes that seem motivated in whole or in part by the homelessness of the victim. But even the relatively little we know tells us there’s a serious nationwide problem.
So what’s to do? The ultimate solution, of course, is to create enough affordable and permanent supportive housing so that no one has to be homeless any more.
In the interim, we have to look for other policy solutions. One NCH recommends is legislation to make homeless people a protected class under existing hate crimes laws.
The District of Columbia has just joined a relatively small number of jurisdictions in enacting such legislation. Under the just-signed emergency crime bill, the Bias-Related Crime Act is amended to include crimes based on a prejudice against homelessness. This will allow a court to impose up to one and a half times the ordinary maximum fine or jail term if a crime against a homeless person was committed at least in part because of the victim’s homelessness.
The measure is important, I think, as an expression of our collective revulsion against senseless, hateful acts. But I doubt the tougher penalties will serve as a deterrent.
After all, crimes like those in the NCH report aren’t based on rational risk/benefit calculations. Most seem prompted by a felt need for the thrill, release and peer validation of attacking a defenseless person. Some apparently are also fueled by hatred or contempt of homeless people. In short, they’re a symptom of something profoundly wrong in our culture.
What else can we think when someone who strangled and cracked open the skull of a homeless man said, when told who the victim was, “Oh him, he’s just a beggar, a vagrant.”? Or when others arrested for similar crimes said they did it for fun or just because they could?
There’s a pathology here that’s beyond my ken. But I think NCH is right to lay part of the blame on laws that target homeless people for innocuous acts like sitting or sleeping in public places, loafing, loitering or living in cars–not to mention laws that prohibit feeding them.
So passing hate crimes laws won’t be enough. Nor, I think, will eliminating laws that criminalize homelessness or putting homeless education programs in our schools, as NCH also recommends. But these are all steps in the right direction.
Not as good as ending homelessness or the deep-seated alienation and rage of young men who get pumped up by “beat[ing] down some bums.” But positive nonetheless.