Crimes of hate and violence have continued to plague the forgotten and most vulnerable members of our society: homeless people. Since 1999, the National Coalition for the Homeless has been tracking the cataclysm of violent crimes that have been committed against homeless persons. The National Coalition for the Homeless has for the tenth year published this report that documents the unfortunate trend of violence towards the homeless.
People who are homeless are more vulnerable to attacks because they live outside in public spaces. Most of our communities do not have adequate, affordable housing or shelter space to meet the need, leaving many homeless people to live outside. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 41.8% of our homeless population is unsheltered.  Undoubtedly, this percentage is higher as current economic issues have brought about high unemployment (9.5%)  and foreclosure rates (up 18% from January 2008) . Without proper action to deal with the crisis of homelessness as a whole, our homeless neighbors will continue to be vulnerable to brutal attacks.
Some cities and states have taken action to address the hate and violence faced by our homeless neighbors. This report highlights: positive steps being taken around the country to combat the growing trend of attacking the homeless, recommendations for advocates, policy makers, and members of the public to help end the violence faced by homeless persons.
While some cities and states have taken positive steps, there are still many parts of the United States that continue to dehumanize homeless persons by creating and enforcing laws that criminalize their homeless status. These laws contain restrictions on sitting, sleeping, storing property, or asking for money in public spaces . Laws that criminalize the homeless encourage the belief that homeless persons are not human, are unworthy of respect, and attacks against the homeless will go unnoticed.
Samples of headlines from the report showcase the violence and horror of the crimes endured by the homeless:
- 16 Year-old Boy Beats Homeless Man to Death with Baseball Bat
- Homeless Veteran Killed in Middle of Marketplace During the Day
- Homeless Man Robbed and Set on Fire
- Homeless Men Violently Harassed with Chainsaw on Numerous Occasion
- Homeless Man Beaten with Nail Studded Board
- Twin Brothers Terrorize Homeless Community
Over the past ten years, hundreds of homeless people have been attacked and killed. While this report provides alarming numbers, the fact remains that countless attacks go undocumented each year. Homeless individuals are treated so poorly by society that their attacks are often forgotten or unreported. Knowing some cases are missing, the attacks that are accounted for over the past ten years are still shocking:
- 880 acts of violence have been committed against homeless individuals
- The attacks have happened in 46 states, Puerto Rico and Washington, DC
- 244 homeless individuals lost their lives in the brutal attacks
The victims of these attacks have faced injustices greater than the scars and pain they endure; they have had to cope with humiliation, tattered self-esteem, and battered respect for themselves as humans.
In 2008, violent acts against the homeless leave much room for improvement:
- 106 homeless persons were victims of violent attacks
- 27 of those 106 persons were killed as a result of those attacks
The perpetrators of these attacks have shown an overwhelming trend to be young men and teen aged boys. Over the past ten years, the majority of attacks against the homeless have been committed by teenage boys and youth as young as ten years old. In 2008:
- 43% of attacks against homeless people were committed by teens aged 13-19
- 73% of the accused/convicted attackers were ages 25 and younger
Some of the accused/convicted have been quoted as saying: “It was just a vagrant”, “it was fun”, or they did it because they “could”. The motives to all attacks are not all clear, but it is obvious that many attacks were committed because the victim was homeless or because the homeless are more vulnerable than housed individuals. In addition, the perpetrators’ characteristics, motive, and weaponry are very similar to perpetrators who commit hate crimes against all other hate crime victim groups. Whether or not the crime was committed out of bias or hatred for the homeless, the fact remains that our homeless neighbors fall victim to an alarming number of attacks each year.
These brutal attacks happened all across the United States; some states accumulated far more attacks than others:
- Florida had the most attacks committed- 30
- California also had a high number of attacks- 22
With this growing problem becoming more and more apparent in communities around the country, some states, cities, and advocacy groups are doing something positive to address the issue.
- California passed a law in 2004 mandating police officer training on hate crimes against homeless persons, particularly those with disabilities.
- Maine passed a law in 2006 that allows judges to take into consideration a victim’s homeless status when considering sentencing for the offender. This was the first state to give homeless people any protection under hate crimes laws.
- A statewide public education project in Florida to educate people about homelessness was initiated in 2007 by the National Coalition for the Homeless in conjunction with AmeriCorps*VISTA Volunteers. This project has now expanded to Georgia and South Carolina.
- The Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust has created a curriculum/video about homelessness that is shown in schools throughout the county to give young people a greater understanding of homelessness.
- Puerto Rico, in 2007, passed a law to create a council that would address the discrimination of homeless individuals and strive to restore basic human rights and needs to the homeless population.
- Alaska added homeless status to a law creating more protection for vulnerable populations
- Seattle amended the city’s malicious harassment statute to criminalize particular acts, including malicious and intentional injury or threats against a person, or destruction of or damage to the person’s property, because of the perception that the person is homeless
- Los Angeles passed a resolution requiring homelessness awareness to be taught at the high school level, trainings for police officers dealing with possible hate crimes against the homeless, and tracking of hate crimes committed against homeless individuals.
- Maryland became the first state to non-discretionally add homeless persons to the existing hate crime law.
- Cleveland, OH passed an ordinance dictating that repercussions for “intimidating” or harassing a homeless person due to their status would be more severe .
- Washington, DC City Council approved a bill adding homeless people to its hate crimes law. It was signed into law by the Mayor on August 6, 2009.
In addition, several legislative initiatives are currently underway to address this growing problem.
- A bill (H.R. 3419) was introduced on July 30, 2009 in this session of Congress in the U.S. House of Representatives by U.S. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and 13 other co-sponsors which seeks to amend the Hate Crimes Statistics Act to include crimes against the homeless.
- A bill, David Ray Ritcheson Hate Crimes Prevention Act (H.R. 262) was also introduced in this session of Congress in the U.S. House of Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX). The bill seeks to provide support to victims of hate crimes, including housing assistance for homeless individuals.
- Bills to add homeless persons as a protected class to state hate crime statutes are currently being considered in California, Florida, and South Carolina.
Even though the trend of violence against homeless persons has risen over the past decade, there are steps that we can take to put an end to this terrible trend. Advocates, service providers, policymakers, and members of the public can take a stand by:
- Supporting bills, such as H.R. 3419 and H.R. 262.
- Supporting state legislative efforts to add homeless persons as a protected class to state hate crime statutes.
- Initiating police trainings to help law enforcement officers better understand homelessness in general and how to prevent and manage hate crime against homeless persons.
- Engaging in public education initiatives in schools to educate young people about homelessness and to humanize homeless neighbors.
- Advocating against city measures that criminalize homelessness and for more constructive approaches to homelessness.
- Advocating for more affordable housing and permanent supportive housing to bring an end to homelessness for those homeless members of our communities.
Office of Planning & Development, U.S. Dept. of Housing & Urban Development, The Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress (Jan. 2008).
National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty and National Coalition for the Homeless. Homes Not Handcuffs: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities. Released: July 14, 2009.