Last year was the “deadliest in a decade,” says the National Coalition for the Homeless in its latest report on hate crimes against homeless people.
Forty-three homeless people died from acts of violence committed against them by housed individuals who were biased against them and/or found them a conveniently vulnerable target for aggression.
This brought the 11-year total to 288 — more than twice as many as all other categories of fatal hate crimes combined.
An article included in the report says that the homicide figures are the best current barometer of the extent of violence against homeless people because they’re “arguably” the only type of violent victimization that gets consistently reported to the police.
The other hate crime cases NCH can document are a “microscopic though fairly representative of types of prejudice motivated offenses against the homeless.” But unless/until Congress expands the federal hate crime law, they’re the best we have. So …
All told, NCH was able to verify 117 hate crimes against homeless people in 2009, bringing the 11-year total to 1,074. Last year, incidents were reported in 21 states and the District of Columbia. For the 11-year period, in all but three states.
Beatings were the single most common type of nonfatal attack — 49 cases last year, not counting those perpetrated by police officers. Homeless people were also raped (9 cases), set on fire (6 cases), shot (another 6 cases) and brutalized by police (4 cases, not counting a rape).
These figures are obviously cause for concern, especially because they’re only cases where available information indicates a bias-related motive. But it’s the accompanying summaries that show what a sick situation we’ve got. A small sample:
- A teenager in Florida says that he and a friend repeatedly shot at homeless people with BB and soft air guns because “there’s nothing else to do for fun.”
- Three young men create improvised fire bombs to throw at a homeless man. One pauses to text a preview to a friend.
- A man offers a homeless, wheelchair-bound woman a place to sleep, then rapes her because he can, he says, “get away with it…. You’re homeless? Nobody cares about you.”
- Some pre-teens in Philadelphia make a game of attacking a stomping people they believe are homeless. One tells police, “It’s something stupid we do for fun.
NCH attributes part of the problem to the shortage of affordable housing and shelter space. And indeed fewer homeless people living on the streets would mean fewer people so vulnerable to attack.
NCH also cites the growing number of local laws that “criminalize” homelessness, e.g., prohibit sleeping, eating and even sitting or standing around in public places. These, it says, tell the public at large that “homeless people do not matter and are not worthy of living in our city.”
Public officials could do something about these contributing factors. They could also, as NCH advocates, legally classify hate crimes against homeless people as such.
But I still doubt that policy changes would get at the roots of the problem. The NCH report provides ample evidence — and not just cases like those cited above.
Like last year’s report, it calls attention to the appallingly popular Bumfight videos and the thousands of copycats teenagers have created by inducing homeless men to fight one another and perform other dangerous and/or humiliating acts.
Now there’s also an online game that challenges players to begin as a “bum” and become the most powerful person in New York City by, among other things, attacking and robbing other homeless people. Currently more than 500,000 users per month.
I can’t begin to fathom the appeal of such wanton real and simulated violence against harmless, helpless individuals — let alone imagine remedies. Don’t think NCH can either, though its reports and recommendations could make a difference.