Their exploitation is viewed by millions of Web users. Communities unite against them. Their abuse, even their deaths, are often undocumented.
The homeless have faced increased violence in the past decade, evident in so-called "bum fight" videos that show attacks on homeless victims, exacerbating negative stereotypes and precipitating more violence.
"There is a problem that we don't view the homeless as human," said Gregg Staffa, 38, who spent three years homeless. "We are not just a bunch of alcoholic drug users. We can contribute to the community."
During the past 13 years, the National Coalition for the Homeless recorded 1,289 incidents of what it characterizes as hate crimes against the homeless. These crimes were committed by people who were not homeless themselves. In 2011, there were 105 attacks that resulted in 32 deaths, and the study found that violent acts are becoming more lethal over time. Nonfatal attacks include rape and beatings. Many violent acts against homeless populations go unreported, so the true number of incidents is likely to be much higher.
Florida recently passed legislation to include the homeless population in its hate crimes law, and this led to a dramatic decrease of these crimes committed against the homeless in the state. The study calls for similar legislation nationwide and education about homelessness in general and its implications.
A hate crime, as defined by the FBI in the report by the National Coalition for the Homeless, is a "criminal offense committed against a person, property or society that is motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender's bias." Currently, the homeless are not listed as a protected class under federal law, so crimes against the homeless are not listed as hate crimes. However, some states, such as Florida and Maryland, have recently introduced legislation to better protect the homeless class.
FBI data released in the 13-year study show 122 homicides legally classified as hate crimes were committed against protected classes. During the same time span, NCH data show 339 fatal attacks committed against the homeless, who are not a federally protected class.
Hate-like crimes against the homeless are unique in two ways, said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University and contributor to the coalition's report. First, there are more homicides against the homeless than against any other class of people combined. Second, hate crimes against the homeless are more violent and brutal. Crimes can include drowning, burning, shooting and stabbing.
"We have a subculture that glorifies violence against the homeless in particular, due to negative stereotypes," Levin said. "The homeless are accessible, and for young people seeking excitement, they represent an easy target."
In recent years there has been an uptick in lethal as well as serial offenses, said Neil Donovan, the coalition's executive director. This means that one individual would commit multiple murders in the same geographic region. Another recent trend is the influence of technology and the emergence of violent video games or "bum fight" videos on the Internet that depict graphic violent acts against the homeless.
"People who grow up on those games need to increase titillation, so they toy with things like abuse, or throwing gasoline on somebody," Donovan said. "Sometimes it ends in the ultimate of hate crimes, which is the ending of somebody's life."
The majority of those committing these crimes are between the ages of 13 and 24 and are poor and uneducated, Donovan said. They also are often heavily influenced by these games and videos.
"We really are seeing a generation of perpetrators that cut their teeth in social media and on games with violence against people who live in illustrations of persistent poverty," he said.
Over time, when communities make laws that negatively target the homeless, such as prohibiting panhandling or sleeping in the streets, attacks on the homeless in those communities increase.
Parents and even local officials can affect how their community, especially youths, views the homeless, said Sean Cononie, founder of The Homeless Voice, a Florida-based homeless-advocate newspaper. The paper educates the public about homeless issues and provides temporary employment for the homeless themselves, while raising money for a Florida shelter.
If the homeless are portrayed as bad or threatening, kids will respond accordingly, he said.
"Most people think homeless people just don't want to work or are poor," Cononie said. "But usually it's because they have another issue that leads them to poverty."
Also, because young people are the main perpetrators of these crimes, parents and politicians need to be more careful about what they say in public, he said.
"When we have communities that put up signs that say 'don't feed the homeless, they're like birds, they'll come back,' it dehumanizes them," he said.
Schools that send their kids to local homeless shelters to volunteer can help change the perception that violence against the homeless is cool, Cononie said.
"We need to teach those kids that many of the homeless are vets who fought in Desert Storm, Iraq, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and they are not bums," Cononie said.
Staffa, the man who spent three years homeless, encountered this negative perception firsthand when he was sleeping at a rest stop in his car. According to Staffa, an officer tapped on his window and told him he had to move, even though he wasn't violating any rules or law.
"Here was an officer who made up his own judgment of the law and only applied it to homeless people," Staffa said.
Problems for homeless
When attackers leave their homes, they usually don't have a specific individual in mind to target. They are criminals of opportunity who often find the homeless most vulnerable, Donovan said.
A lot of crimes committed against the homeless go unreported, Cononie said. Often this is because the homeless victim has an outstanding warrant for something such as public intoxication, or the police do not trust the homeless person to accurately report the crime. The homeless need to be off the street to be protected, he said.
"Being homeless is already a risk factor in itself," Cononie said. "They have no way to protect themselves on the streets. There are no walls, no alarms, no door locks. You don't have an alarm on your cardboard box."
Cononie calls for more shelters, beds and affordable housing to help curtail these attacks. The police also need to recognize what a hate crime is and make sure reports are filed, he said.
Although shelters get the homeless off the streets, they are not a cure-all and they have their own set of problems.
"There is a common perception that if they (homeless) had the wherewithal, they could make it to a shelter or get off the streets," Donovan said. "But shelters are very violent and tough places. When people choose to go outside, it's a very difficult choice to make."14 comments on this story
During the three years he was homeless, Staffa, who lived out of his car, visited homeless shelters around the country and committed himself to helping the homeless population. He sold all of his possessions and donated blankets, sleeping bags, socks and more to the homeless. Just sitting down with the homeless for a cup of coffee made a world of difference, he said.
"If more people paused and got to know the homeless as real people they would be amazed at some of the stories they would find," Staffa said.
He was discouraged that the homeless shelters seemed more interested in competing for funding rather than working together to best serve the homeless population.
"When you're homeless and you're in the system, it's just a mess," he said. "It's amazing that anyone gets housing these days with all the red tape and bureaucracy."