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.

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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.