New hate crime legislation to protect homeless community

By Rebecca Carey, Roger Williams Law School Student

This month, Maryland will become the first state in the nation to protect homeless individuals under its hate crime legislation, allowing prosecutors to seek stiffer penalties for crimes committed against individuals based on their race, religion, sexual orientation, etc. With the growing number of unprovoked attacks on the homeless community, other states are looking to take action.

The recent number of attacks against homeless individuals has been rising in recent years, and in light of the current economic crisis and the increase of people on the streets, the number will only get larger. A recent report conducted by the National Coalition for the Homeless has said that there have been over 800 attacks on the homeless, over 200 of which resulted in death.

Although many attacks on homeless individuals are by other homeless individuals, a growing number have been outsiders – mostly men or teenage boys who seem to be doing it for the sport of it. 58 percent of assailants over the past 10 years fall in the 13-19 age range. The homeless community is a vulnerable group whose mistreatment and victimization goes almost undetected most of the time. There are higher rates of assaults, rapes, and other violent crimes against the homeless, almost more than any other group. Victims include men, women, veterans, even children as young as four years-old. In 2006, the number of attacks against homeless people rose by 65% over the prior year.

The National Coalition for the Homeless reports that, “between 1999 and 2007, more fatal attacks have been documented against homeless individuals than in all legally-recognized hate crime categories combined. There were 85 homicides classified as legally-defined hate crimes. Over that same period there were 217 deaths as a result of violent acts directed at homeless individuals.”

Some opponents to the inclusion of homeless in hate crime legislation argue that unlike race or sexual orientation, homelessness is not a permanent condition and that including too many groups within these protected classes would dilute the laws. However, this class based attack on voiceless individuals should not be tolerated. Homeless advocates lack the political and economic infrastructure to take affirmative action to bring attention to these issues. Victimization of this often targeted group should not be downplayed.

Alaska, Puerto Rico, Los Angeles County, California, Seattle, Washington, California, Texas, South Carolina, and Florida have all proposed similar statutes to that being enacted in Maryland. With increased awareness of this issue and action from a grass-roots level, more states will follow suit and eventually there will be an end to the ruthless victimization of the homeless community in violent criminal behavior.

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