By John Halpin
The criminalization of the homeless is an attempt by cities across the country to rid their streets of homeless people. Often, cities cite safety concerns as a reason to remove homeless people. Recent reports, however, show that rather than being perpetrators of violent crimes, homeless people are often the victims of such acts.
During the 1990s, reports of homeless people being brutally beaten and killed surfaced across the country. The National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) decided in 1999 to document these varied reports of violence in a white paper. That year, they reported 29 homeless people were killed and 6 suffered non-lethal attacks. A more extensive effort in 2000 reported 43 homeless people killed and 23 victims of non-lethal violence. While these numbers might appear small considering they are national figures, they do not represent the total number of crimes that occur. Many of thee crimes go unreported to the police, service providers, or newspapers, and hence did not find their way to NCH’s reports. And what these reports may lack in numbers, they make up in the gruesome nature of some of the attacks.
In one Las Vegas case, a seventy-six year –old homeless man was beaten to death by group of ten teenagers. Ron Travis, another homeless man camped in the area witnessed the attacks and scared the teens off approaching them with a large rock. “He didn’t say anything to them,” Travis said of the victim. “He had his blankets over his head. That’s the way he sleeps. I didn’t hear them saying anything before they started. I just heard Arthur grunting when he was being kicked.
A series of attacks in Colorado Springs, Colorado, left homeless people in the city fearing for their safety. John Michael Jones of Lexington, Kentucky, was found dead in his sleeping back, apparently of a blow to the head. He was found under a bridge, in the same area where two other homeless men were badly beaten. These two men could not identify their assailants because they were attacked at night, but police believe that a band of teens were responsible for both attacks.
The 2000 Hate Crimes Report cites the U.S. Department of Justice report that most hate crimes are not committed by organized hate groups but rather by individuals who harbor strong resentments against certain groups of people. The report divides hate crime perpetrators into three groups. “Mission offenders” act in an attempt to cleanse society of a group they consider evil. “Scapegoat offenders” attack as a way to express their resentment toward the growing economic power of a minority group. The third group, which are the most likely to attack homeless people, are “Thrill seekers.” Thrill seekers target vulnerable and disadvantaged groups to satisfy their thrills.
One can scarcely imagine a target as vulnerable as a woman or a man who must live their entire lived in public. The National Coalition for the Homeless intends to continue documenting hate crimes against the homeless. It intends to use the reports it produces to educate lawmakers about this phenomenon and to recommend that proactive measures be taken.
The National Coalition for the Homeless made five specific recommendation s for action in their 2000 report:
- That the U.S. Department of Justice acknowledge hate crimes and/or violence against the homeless as a serious national trend,
- That the Justice Department tract hate crimes and violence against the homeless,
- That any new federal hate crimes legislation include homelessness,
- That police departments across the country include training on how to effectively and humanely work with the homeless people in their communities, and
- That the Department of Justice sponsor or fund a research study to interview perpetrators of hate crimes against the homeless in order to determine the motivation behind such attacks.
For more information on hate crimes against the homeless, visit the National Coalition for the Homeless’ website: www.nationalhomeless.org.
Copyright NEOCH published 2001 Issue 50