Stateline Story

Attacks on Homeless Spur New Laws

  • March 26, 2007
  • By Christine Vestal

A nationwide surge in violence against homeless people has at least six states considering stiffer punishments by adding attacks on the homeless to state hate crime laws.

According to a new report by the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH), 142 homeless persons were violently attacked in 2006, compared to 86 in 2005. Florida by far had the largest number of such assaults and homicides, with 48 in 2006.

Across the country, the vast majority of attackers were youths, some as young as 13 years old. Many of the accused and convicted cited their motive as boredom, saying they acted for the "thrill" or "fun" of it, according to the study.

Advocates for the homeless say tougher new laws could raise awareness of this disturbing trend and deter would-be assailants. But opponents argue that homeless people already are protected by criminal codes that outlaw assaults and violent acts and that naming the homeless in hate crime statutes is unnecessary, said Brian Levin, director of the California State University Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.

Last year, Maine became the first state to beef up punishments for violence against homeless people but stopped short of making such attacks a separate hate crime. In 2005, California began requiring law enforcers to receive special training in ways to effectively and humanely protect the homeless.

This year California, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada and Texas are considering bills that would add the homeless to a list of groups defined by religion, race, ethnicity, gender, disability or sexual orientation that are protected by existing state hate crime laws.

Maryland's homeless bill was overwhelmingly approved by the state Senate this month, and hearings are scheduled in the House of Delegates this week. Florida's bills were approved by the committees in each legislative chamber and further hearings are scheduled for April. So far, no votes have been taken on bills in California, Massachusetts, Nevada and Texas.

Hate crime laws allow prosecutors to charge defendants with an additional crime when a victim is a member of a protected group. All but eight states - Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, New Mexico, South Carolina and Wyoming - have laws that define acts of violence, and in some cases vandalism, against members of certain groups to be a separate crime, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Groups protected by state hate crime laws vary widely. California has one of the broadest statutes, calling for extra criminal penalties for bias-motivated intimidation, violence or vandalism against members of certain groups defined by their race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, disability, age, political affiliation or transgender identity. Idaho and Montana include only racial, religious and ethnic groups in their hate crime laws.

Two possible reasons exist for Florida's high level of violence against the homeless, said Michael Stoops, executive director of NCH. First, is that many cities and towns seeking to shield their lucrative tourism business have made sleeping in public places illegal and have called for police raids to enforce those laws. Stoops said that might lead some to think homeless people are not equally protected under the law. NCH and other advocates for the homeless have shown a much higher incidence of attacks on the homeless in cities with sanctions against the homeless.

In addition, a January 2006 Ft. Lauderdale attack on a group of homeless men by three teenagers using baseball bats and sticks was caught on a surveillance video that was widely distributed, spawning what many law enforcement officials said were copycat attacks, Stoops said.

California has the largest homeless population, with more than 170,000 individuals, followed by Florida with an estimated 60,000, New York with 61,000, Texas with more than 43,000 and Washington state with nearly 24,000, according to 2005 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates and other data compiled by the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Nevada has the highest homelessness rate per capita, followed by Rhode Island, California, Hawaii, Colorado, Oregon, Idaho, Alaska and Washington state, according to the National Alliance study.