Mar. 21, 2007 – While sleeping in abandoned buildings, parking lots or dumpsters in New York City and Washington, DC, David Pirtle recalls, strangers threw rocks at him, clubbed him and spray-painted on him.
"When youâ€™re sleeping outside... youâ€™re at the mercy of the community at large," said Pirtle, who was homeless for more than two years and now speaks out on related issues.
In response to attacks on people still enduring â€“ or dying from â€“ that kind of mistreatment on the street, several states have passed or are considering bills that would classify such assaults as hate crimes. This month, Maryland became the second state to categorize attacks against the homeless as hate crimes, after Maine, which passed its bill last year. The bills allow for enhanced penalties in such incidents. Lawmakers in Florida are considering similar legislation.
Advocates for homeless people say laws that raise the penalties for attacking homeless people send an important message: that such bias attacks will not be tolerated. But they say hate-crime legislation only goes so far, and to truly protect homeless people from attack, governments should expand affordable housing and institute living wages to offer them a way to get off the street.
In 2006, the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) counted 142 violent acts by non-homeless people against homeless people, 20 of which were fatal.
"When youâ€™re sleeping outside... youâ€™re at the mercy of the community at large."
The NCH report recounted that in one instance in Oxnard, California, police reported that a suspect beat a 41-year-old homeless man to death after finding the man sleeping in his front yard. In Orlando, Florida, a 51-year-old homeless man was shot in the head and leg on his way to work.
"We think our findings are only the tip of the iceberg. A lot of times when homeless people get beat up, they donâ€™t report it," Michael Stoops, NCH director, told The NewStandard. "They donâ€™t have a close-knit family to demand justice," Stoops said. "They think the police donâ€™t care and that society doesnâ€™t care."
Stoops noted that besides lacking the protection of secure housing, many homeless people suffer from physical or mental disabilities that leave them in vulnerable situations and prone to attack. He added that the attacks have a "racial component," since the perpetrators have usually been white and homeless people are disproportionately people of color.
Before moving into a shelter, Pirtle said he was the victim of seemingly random attacks five times while living on the streets. Pirtle said his schizophrenia made him unable to camp with others. Without the protection of living in numbers, Pirtle said he was more vulnerable to assault.
"Most people who are attacked are out there on their own, because these [attacks] are gutless crimesâ€¦ [the perpetrators] wouldnâ€™t mess with a bunch of homeless people because [the would-be victims] wouldnâ€™t stand for it," Pirtle said.
"Itâ€™s a message crime... [that] demands a priority response."
Pirtle insisted that living on the street was actually cleaner than conditions at the homeless shelter. But, he noted, at least the shelter offered protection from the "general public."
Michael Lieberman, with the Anti-Defamation League, which works to end hate speech and crime against Jewish people and other groups, said that hate-crime laws do not necessarily lead to a reduction in crime. Still, he said, they make an important symbolic gesture.
Lieberman argued hate-crime designations are needed because bias crimes harm not only the victim but also the victimâ€™s community at large. "It has an impact on anyone similarly situated," he said. "The people who burn that cross on a black familyâ€™ s front lawn donâ€™t likely know the people... itâ€™s not about them, itâ€™s about anyone whoâ€™s black who would dare move in to the previously white neighborhood. Itâ€™s a message crime... [that] demands a priority response."
The designation, he added, helps law-enforcement officers recognize and track these crimes.
"If you know the magnitude of the problem, then you can do something about it," Lieberman said. "If you have to report the number of hate crimes, then you have to train an officer on what is a hate crime and how to respond it."
Advocates say the number of attacks against the homeless is likely highly underreported because homeless people are reluctant to approach the police. "The police are not your friends," Pirtle said, recalling an incident in which his friend was arrested after he chased a group of boys who stole his laptop as he and Pirtle were sleeping on Pennsylvania Avenue. "I donâ€™t know anyone whoâ€™s been assaulted whoâ€™s gone to the cops, because thereâ€™s no point."
"The ultimate solution is housing everybody and not necessarily locking up the perpetrators of hate crimes for the rest of their lives."
If the core problem is lack of housing and means, rather than lack of law-enforcement after the fact, attacks may rise as a result of government neglect. According to the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities, the federal funding for low-income housing has declined by $3.3 billion dollars from 2004 to 2006. The cuts have led to the loss of housing vouchers for 150,000 households since 2004.
Last year, the 23 cities surveyed by the US Conference of Mayors experienced an average increase of 9 percent in shelter requests, with some cities experiencing an increase of 30 or 40 percent. The study also found that an average of 23 percent of shelter requests were unmet in the cities surveyed in 2006. The lack of affordable housing was listed as the main cause for homelessness in 17 cities surveyed. Mental illness and substance abuse were also primary causes cited.
"If everybody had a roof, a door, they would be a lot safer," Stoops said. "The ultimate solution is housing everybody and not necessarily locking up the perpetrators [of hate crimes] for the rest of their lives."
In addition to expanding affordable housing, Stoops suggested that to reduce attacks against the homeless, cities and towns should establish tent cities by encouraging homeless people to gather in certain public areas and sleep in groups, for both companionship and protection. In many cities today, by contrast, police and politicians view such congregations of people without permanent housing as convenient targets for enforcing laws against sleeping in public spaces.
Tulin Ozdeger, a civil-rights attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, said cities should also stop passing laws that criminalize homelessness. He pointed, for instance, to anti-panhandling laws, which she said perpetuate the notion that homeless people are inferior. Other examples include laws that ban feeding the homeless and loitering.
"Laws that are targeting homeless people really are doing so in some cases out of a desire to move homeless people out of the public eye," Ozdeger said. "So these kinds of organized measures that target homeless people send a message to the general public that perhaps homeless people are not as valuable as people who are housed."