Earlier this month, Florida became the fourth jurisdiction in the United States to add homeless people as a protected class to its hate crimes statute. In prior years, Maine, Maryland, and the District of Columbia have all added homeless people as a protected class to their hate crimes statutes. Each of these statutes imposes enhanced penalties upon perpetrators who attack a person because he or she is homeless. Other states, such as Rhode Island and Ohio are considering similar measures, while California is considering a bill that would allow homeless victims to sue their attackers for additional damages.
This growing effort to provide protection for homeless individuals has been spurred by the increasing number of attacks against them over the past decade. In its 2008 hate crimes report, the National Coalition for the Homeless documented 106 attacks against homeless people, 27 of which resulted in death. The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty has worked closely with the National Coalition for the Homeless on the state and federal level to bring attention to the issue and provide protection for homeless people. We are glad to see our efforts are starting to pay off.
The attacks that have been documented have been truly horrendous, including homeless people being set on fire. While it is somewhat baffling — and quite frankly deeply disturbing — to think why and how some members of our society can be so violently cruel against another group of people, it may not be that surprising. The message that homeless people are not to be viewed as fully human is frequently sent out to the public, not just by private citizens but by our own governments. Cities around the country routinely target homeless people through laws that essentially make it a crime to be homeless. These laws include anti-camping, anti-panhandling, anti-sitting, and even laws that make it difficult to share food with homeless people. Many times, the purpose of these measures is to move homeless neighbors out of sight, as though they are second or third class citizens. It is no wonder that private actors feel emboldened in expressing their bias against homeless individuals. If the government is treating homeless people so badly, why can’t they?
That is why these steps that states are taking to include homeless people as a protected class are so important. They can serve as countermeasures to the constant assaults on homeless people. When our state legislators pass these laws they are sending a message to the public that homeless people are not second class citizens, and attacks against them will not be tolerated. It is our hope and goal at the Law Center that this message is heard loud and clear.
-Tulin Ozdeger, Civil Rights Program Director