Hate crimes against the homeless remain a problem

Published: Monday, May 6 2013 11:10 p.m. MDT

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.

Hektor Pustina, Associated Press

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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.

Hate crimes

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.

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