Voting Rights Of Poor Americans Undermined By GOP Policymakers

September 17, 2011

An e-mail from the National Coalition for the Homeless asks, “Are we disenfranchising the poor?” This in announcing it’s called on the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene.

The “we” here are the states that won’t let people vote unless they present a photo ID — or won’t count their vote unless they come back with one in a matter of days.

These “strict photo ID” requirements, as the National Conference of State Legislators calls them, seem to be getting more popular.

At the beginning of 2011, only two states — Georgia and Indiana — had them. Now seven more states do, though three of them can’t impose the requirements until they get permission from the Justice Department.

These three, like Georgia as well, are subject to the preclearance requirements of the Voting Rights Act because they have a history of voting discrimination. Tells you something, doesn’t it?

NCH is understandably concerned that the photo ID requirements will keep homeless people from voting. There are particular problems, it says, in getting a photo ID when you don’t have a stable address.

However, most of the problems it identifies would affect other low-income people too.

Consider that you can’t just waltz into a government office and get a photo ID. You’ve got to show some other officially-recognized ID that proves you’re who you claim to be.

A birth certificate will do, though maybe only with some other proof of identify. But lots of people will have to send away for a copy — once they figure out where to send. They’ll have to pay a fee for it and obviously get started well in advance of election day.

NCH maintains that elderly people born in the South may not have a birth certificate because they were delivered at home by midwives. An online news source in South Carolina confirms this and details potentially costly, time-consuming complications.

One way or the other, you’re likely to have surmounted the hurdles if you’re a middle-class American. You’ve got a photo on your driver’s license.

If you never drive, you’re likely to have gotten a state ID, though AARP argues that seniors and people with disabilities may not, especially those in assisted living facilities or nursing homes.

In theory, the burdens of the photo ID requirements fall equally on blacks, browns and whites. But so did the notorious poll taxes Southern states used to keep blacks from voting.

In fact, Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) calls the photo ID requirements “a poll tax by another name,” noting that as many as 25% of blacks have no form of acceptable identification. This is almost certainly linked to the fact that a far higher percentage of blacks than whites are poor. Hispanics also.

Nevertheless, I’m inclined to think that legislators who’ve passed strict photo ID requirements have a different agenda from the out-in-out racists Lewis bravely campaigned against in the early 1960s.

They don’t so much object to racial and ethnic minority voters per se. Or to low-income voters generally. It’s how they vote.

Republicans control both houses of the legislature in all but one of the states — Rhode Island — that adopted strict photo ID requirements this year. And all five governors who vetoed strict voting requirements state legislatures had passed were Democrats.

So what we seem to be seeing here are partisan preemptive strikes against low-income voters — perhaps especially racial and ethnic minorities — because of the candidates they’re likely to support.

Even in the last election, which saw a big shift to Republicans, majorities in all three of these overlapping categories voted Democrat. So did college students — another group that will face new barriers to voting.

Supporters of photo ID requirements claim they’re necessary to prevent voter fraud. However, cases of proven voter fraud are rare.

And cases where the fraud involved impersonating someone else — the kind of fraud a photo ID requirement would prevent — are, according to a Brennan Center for Justice study, “an occurrence more rare than getting struck by lightning.”

Disenfranchisement of any eligible voter for any reason should cause the gravest concerns.

Disenfranchising millions of homeless and other low-income Americans — or even discouraging them from voting — because of how they vote is outrageous.

But it’s a good way to tilt election outcomes, isn’t it?


Deadly Crimes Against Homeless People Hit 10-Year High

August 30, 2010

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.

New Report Documents Violence Against Homeless People

August 15, 2009

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.

For 10 years now, the National Coalition for the Homeless has been issuing annual reports on crimes like these. It’s just published the latest.

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.

Homeless Memorial Day

December 15, 2008

On December 21, the first day of winter and the longest night of the year, the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Health Care for the Homeless Council will co-sponsor the 19th annual National Homeless Memorial Day.

Local and statewide organizations across the country will host events to mourn community members who died this year on the streets or in emergency shelters. Thousands of lives cut short because we don’t have adequate policies and programs to prevent homelessness or to provide homeless people with essential services and a safe, stable place to live.

The D.C. Homeless Memorial Day event will begin at 7:00 PM in the plaza outside Union Station. It’s an opportunity for those of us who live in the District to raise awareness of the ongoing, wasteful tragedies of homelessness in our community.

It’s also an opportunity to demonstrate support for more effective, better-funded programs to meet the immediate needs of homeless people and address the root causes of homelessness, including the affordable housing crisis. What with recent budget cuts and more on the horizon, the message couldn’t be more timely.