The Struggle to Protect Homeless People from Violence

The National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) documented 113 acts of violence against unhoused people in 2010. California has consistently been a leading state in hate crimes. Since the NCH started gathering data in 1999, the state has recorded 225 assaults of homeless people, and 48 resulted in death.

by T.J. Johnston

 

The streets continue to be mean for homeless people, especially for those living in California. And deadly, as well.

Among the latest casualties were John Berry, James McGillivray, Paulus Cornelius Smit and Lloyd Middaugh, all of whom lived — and died — on the streets in Orange County in January.

The district attorney’s office has charged that Izcoatl Ocampo, a former Marine jailed in connection with their murders, expressly targeted homeless people before stabbing them to death.

Already these four deaths from homeless-directed violence outnumber those California saw in 2010, according to a homeless advocacy organization.

These recent attacks are the kinds of incidents that the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) tracks in hopes of swaying lawmakers into including housing status in hate crime laws, just as there are hate crime laws for attacks on people based on race, religion, sexual orientation, disability and other characteristics.

The Washington, D.C.-based group asserts that a specific animus against homeless people drives these attacks. It documented 113 acts of violence against unhoused people in 2010 as part of its latest report, Hate Crimes Against the Homeless: Violence Hidden in Plain View.

California has consistently been a leading state in such crimes. Since the NCH started gathering data in 1999, the state has recorded 225 assaults of homeless people, based on police reports, hospitalizations and self-reported narratives from victims and their supporters. Of those incidents, 48 resulted in death.

Four states have responded to the prevalence of anti-homeless attacks by enacting legislation that includes homeless people as a protected class in their hate crimes laws. Maryland was the first to do so in 2009, followed by Florida, Washington and Rhode Island.

Despite the high incidence of violence against homeless people and its reputation as a social and political bellwether, California has yet to offer its own legal remedy. Three times, the state legislature passed a law that would have entitled victims to damages and compensation, only to be met with a governor’s veto.

Arnold Schwarzenegger nixed it when a bill reached his desk in 2010, as did Pete Wilson in 1994. Both times, the law was passed by largely Democratic legislatures, only to be vetoed by Republican governors.

But last year, Gov. Jerry Brown surprised his fellow Democrats when he vetoed hate crimes legislation.

“It is undeniable that homeless people are vulnerable to victimization, but California already has very strong civil and criminal laws that provide sufficient protection,” Brown said in his veto statement.

But NCH Director Neil Donovan believes that a state high court order to release people from overcrowded prisons made Brown reluctant to sign any law that would add to the prison population.

“The governor can’t use that as an explanation why he wouldn’t put in place protections for homeless people,” Donovan said. “Hate crimes legislation is a viable method of protecting the legal rights of homeless individuals.”

“Freedom from Fear.” Homeless people have been killed in a wave of hate crimes. California is a leading state in this wave of hate crimes. Art by Art Hazelwood

 

Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, authored the previous two bills, and said she was disappointed by Brown’s veto. She said it is crucial to convey a sense of urgency in passing such a law. “I think we have to make the case to the governor that the unhoused are not only uniquely vulnerable, but they are also specifically targeted in a way that in any other setting would amount to a hate crime,” Lowenthal said.

Though his veto was unexpected, Brown’s reasoning behind his decision differed from that of his predecessor. When Schwarzenegger refused to sign off on Lowenthal’s bill, he disputed the notion that homeless people should be considered a legally protected class.

“While this bill is well-intentioned, it is unclear whether the homeless are targeted for violence because they are homeless, or because they possess a characteristic already protected by California’s hate crime statute, such as mental or physical disability,” Schwarzenegger said. In the same statement, he also said defending the law against potential legal challenges would increase court costs.

Paul Boden, director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, said he doubted a new law would be the answer.

“Putting people in prison so that they could clean people from hatred (of homeless people) makes no sense,” he said.

Although he agrees there is clearly a problem with growing anti-homeless sentiment, Boden thinks what’s required is a different approach — specifically, fighting laws that prohibit behaviors often associated with homelessness, such as panhandling, loitering or sleeping outside.

He believes that the dialogue surrounding these laws demonizes homeless people, and such negative portrayals are mistaken by perpetrators as tacit approval for their attacks on homeless people.

“We pushed the federal government to see how local governments are criminalizing homeless people as a cause or one of the causes,” he said. “The flames of hatred are coming from the government and the media as much as the people who are acting it out.”

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