by T.J. Johnston, Newsdesk.org
Ricky Green of Bolinas, Calif., and Anthony Waters of Cleveland, Ohio, don’t know each other, but they have this much in common: both are homeless and both were brutalized by packs of teenagers in June.
But their outcomes differed. Green survived. Waters did not. Advocates for the homeless say such violent acts by youth are on the rise, and should be considered hate crimes because the victims were homeless.
Whether the violence is part of a trend, however, is in dispute, in part because no one can agree on how to measure it.
“We have seen an increasing number of attacks on homeless people and the perpetrators have overwhelmingly been teenagers and young adults,” said Michael Stoops, director of the National Coalition for the Homeless.
In April, NCH issued their annual report “Hate, Violence and Death on Main Street, USA,” in collaboration with the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.
Compiling accounts from press reports, advocacy organizations and firsthand narratives from current and formerly homeless people, NCH documented 160 attacks on homeless people in 2007 resulting in 28 fatalities. The year before, 142 attacks and 20 deaths were recorded.
According to the NCH data, the assailants were predominantly male, and 86 percent of those accused and convicted were 25 years old or younger. Almost two-thirds were between 13 and 19.
Stoops said he believes the victims’ status as homeless people motivate these attacks; while some attacks might be spontaneous, others are premeditated.
His organization also criticizes laws against panhandling and public sleeping as encouraging public animosity against the homeless.
“At city council meetings, people are saying bad things against homeless people,” he said. “The general population hears this and a minority of them get the idea there’s broad based support for cracking down on the homeless population,” which can provoke physical violence as well.
“Some acts of violence are, for sure, hate crimes where teenagers and young adults sit around the kitchen table and plan an attack on the local homeless person,” he adds. The refrain from the attackers, NCH found in most cases, was the acts were done for thrill seeking or “because they simply ‘can.’”
But criminal justice experts dispute NCH’s findings — or at least how they arrived at them.
Michael Males, a senior researcher for the Center of Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco, said the numbers are too small to reflect a trend.
“There is no evidence of an ‘epidemic’ of teenage attacks on the homeless, let alone a rising one,” he said, noting that the NCH study only counted attacks perpetrated by individuals with housing.
Furthermore, Males said if homeless people suffer assaults at the national average of 20.7 per 1,000 people annually, the number of attacks would hover around 15,000.
Dan Macallair, CJCJ’s executive director, added that youth crime overall has been on the decline since 1994, citing FBI estimates.
State and Federal Laws
Stoops stand by NCH’s numbers. He compares NCH’s data collection methods to what gay rights and other minority groups have done to document hate crimes before laws against such crimes took effect in the 1990s.
“While it’s easy to criticize our study, nobody else has done a damn thing — no government agency, no legislative body,” he said.
At the federal level, advocates are backing legislation by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.) to amend existing hate crime laws to include homeless people.
“Until we get a federal law, we’re trying to document the problem and come [up] with a way to get better data,” Stoops said.
Meanwhile, on the state and local levels, new laws are gaining traction.
Since 2004, California has required law-enforcement officers to undergo training on hate crimes against homeless people, especially those with disabilities.
The following year, Maine passed a law that allows judges to consider a victim’s homeless status when sentencing convicted offenders.
Legislatures in Massachusetts, Ohio and Alaska are also considering amending their hate crimes statutes to include homeless people.
In 2007, Seattle, Wash. became the first U.S. city to pass its own hate crimes law.
Public schools in Miami, Fla. would like to prevent such crimes from ever happening. In response to the growing number of attacks on homeless people, the school district created a curriculum to humanize homeless people, especially their fellow classmates.
The curriculum’s centerpiece is an instructional video, “It Could Happen To You,” co-produced by NCH, Community Housing Partnership and the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust, and it will be distributed nationwide.
The video describes how people can become homeless and urges students to intervene if they see a homeless person get harassed.
A voiceover intones that homeless people have the same aspirations and rights as those with housing, and features NBA star Alonzo Mourning making a plea for empathy
17-year-old Diana represents the growing population of families who became homeless. In her case, Diana’s parents lost their jobs, then their house.
“(Homeless people) are human beings, just like everybody else,” she says in the video.
In Florida, the leading state in reported attacks on the homeless — 31 last year, according to NCH statistics — there’s some urgency to her message.
The problem there is so acute that CBS News went to Florida to shoot a report broadcast on Sept. 21, 2008, report on attacks on homeless people.
John D’Amico of Daytona Beach is one such victim. He was struck on the head with a cinder block, leaving him visually impaired and the victim of last year’s youngest assailants.
“I’m sure to a 10-year-old’s mind, somehow it was my fault,” D’Amico told CBS.
Some attackers are caught on tape with the perpetrators themselves posting the footage online. A You Tube search yields 1,500 videos under the title “bum fight.”
But Ron Book, director of Miami-Dade Homeless Trust, hopes the educational video “It Could Happen To You” would teach students empathy.
“The only way to break the cycle is to get in and sensitize the people,” Book said.