Violence Rises Against Homeless Population Nationwide
Attacks on Homeless Rise Across Nation
By Brentin Mock
Assaults on the homeless are becoming more common and are often captured on video, like the image above, which was taken earlier this year in Fort Lauderdale.
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Harold Washington has two strikes against him: He's black, and he's homeless.
For the last seven months, Washington has slept in tents, under bridges, or on park benches. He temporarily claimed a room at a friend's apartment until his roommate got in a fight with his girlfriend and she set the place on fire. "We were all lucky to get out of that one," says Washington.
Last November, the day before Thanksgiving, he wasn't so lucky.
Washington had just finished a day of labor at Tropicana Field, a major league baseball stadium located in a formerly African-American, working-class neighborhood near downtown St. Petersburg. Soon after he left the stadium, Washington was ambushed by a gang of six white youths he describes as "skinheads."
"All I remember was waking up from a coma," says Washington. "I ain't heard no more about it."
Similar reports of violent targeting of the homeless are rising sharply in America. According to Hate, Violence, and Death on Main Street USA, a 2006 report from the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH), 26 states recorded assaults or murders of homeless people committed last year, not counting so-called "homeless-on-homeless" violence. Nationwide, there were 142 reported attacks on homeless persons, up 65% from the 86 logged in 2005, and up almost 300% from the 36 docked in 2002. Included among the 2006 crimes were five rapes, six people set on fire and 20 murders. These numbers are almost certainly low, because a high percentage of attacks on the homeless are believed to go unreported.
The escalating violence and accompanying media coverage has prompted lawmakers in six states — California, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada and Texas — to introduce legislation that would extend hate crime laws to enhance penalties for violent crimes committed against homeless people. A seventh state, Maine, recently passed a law mandating harsher penalties for violence against the homeless without labeling such attacks hate crimes. Florida led the nation in 2006 with 48 reported attacks on the homeless in cities in all regions of the state — but legislators there voted down the proposed legislation in May. The state with the second highest tally, Arizona, had 16, all but one of which occurred in the Phoenix metropolitan area.
Last January, shortly before the NCH report came out, three teenagers were arrested for shooting to death two homeless men in St. Petersburg, Fla. during a botched robbery.
"Clearly, homeless people are targeted because of their lack of housing," said NCH executive director Michael Stoops. "If every homeless person had a door, a key, whether to a shelter, or apartment or motel room, there would be less attacks."
The spreading violence has raised a key question for Stoops, other advocates for the homeless, and the larger civil rights community: Should the homeless, who are frequently targeted out of hatred but also because of the sheer ease of attacking them, be protected by hate crimes legislation?
Harold Washington, who considers himself lucky to have survived last year's beating at the hands of six skinheads, still carries his Bayfront Medical Center hospital records in a black leather waist pouch. They show he was admitted to the emergency room and discharged last Dec. 1. The attack left scars on his forehead and an abscess below his bloodshot right eye.
After the attack, Washington moved into St. Petersburg's infamous "tent city," a place where dozens of homeless people congregate inside tents on a small plot of land just outside the downtown business corridor. St. Petersburg homeless advocate Eric Rubin, who used to be homeless himself, said that homeless people created the tent city last year to be a safe zone of mutual protection, with its own democratically elected government and security patrols. "That is what brought it [the tent city] together, people being beat up and murdered," Rubin told the Intelligence Report. "The homeless spontaneously came together for protection, and that's what we're still working toward."
The tent city made headlines in January when local police raided it, slicing tents down with blades while homeless men and women cringed inside. The campers rebuilt. But on March 13, the encampment swarmed with police and contracted workers who broke the city down again. Municipal officials planned to move the campers to a city-run lot where they would be photographed, fingerprinted and wristbanded, then supervised by city officials.
Washington, who is the tent city's elected donations intake officer, sat aloof in a rickety lawn chair, watching the city workers dismantle his city one stake at a time. Kathy Hines, the encampment's elected mayor, said almost everyone who stays there has been attacked or harassed, including herself. "I've had eggs thrown at me and my stuff stolen," said Hines, known affectionately to her constituents as "Mom." "They're just rich kids. … When they throw whatever at you and you see the car they're driving, it's not an old Chevy, y'know?"
Many attacks on the homeless go far beyond throwing eggs from nice cars. In February, two white teenagers and a 22-year-old white man videotaped their premeditated attack on a randomly chosen homeless person, who they kicked and beat in Corpus Christi, Texas.
On March 27, homeless Army veteran John D'Amico and his friend Michael Wantland, who's also homeless, were attacked by two 10-year-old kids and one 17-year-old in Daytona Beach, Fla. One of the 10-year-olds allegedly smashed D'Amico in the eye socket with a cinderblock.
"Yeah, they attacked me because I'm homeless," D'Amico told the Intelligence Report. "They were calling me 'ol' man'— this and that. They were just looking for a fight."
Two days later, in Laguna Beach, Calif., a 22-year-old member of MS-13, a particularly violent Latino street gang, was arrested for stabbing a homeless man he apparently chose at random.
Twice this year, police in St. Petersburg, Fla., tore down a "tent city" that had become a refuge for the area's embattled homeless. Photo by Brentin Mock
Neo-Nazis Chip In
Unlike the Laguna Beach stabbing, the vast majority of attacks on the homeless are carried out by young, white and middle-class males, according to the NCH study of crime statistics. The study showed that 84% of attacks on the homeless in 2006 were carried out by assailants under the age of 25 and 62% were committed by youths between 13 and 19.
Stoops blames at least some of the violence on "thrill seekers" inspired by the wildly popular "Bum Fights" DVD series.
"These kids are bored to death," says Stoops. "They're at home watching violence on TVs and on their computers, and they say, 'Let's go emulate what we just saw.'"
Last January, Florida Atlantic University surveillance cameras captured three teenagers beating to death a 45-year-old homeless man with baseball bats in Fort Lauderdale. The graphic images quickly made their way to mainstream news broadcasts and YouTube video streams.
"We had been the lonely advocate on this issue until the beating in Fort Lauderdale," says Stoops. "That became our Rodney King video, which raised awareness and sparked media attention and legislation being introduced." While most of the white youths who attack homeless people are not affiliated with hate groups, there are notable exceptions. In April 1992, long before NCH began tracking violence against the homeless, several members of the Aryan National Front, a hardcore racist skinhead gang, beat and kicked an African-American man to death beneath a bridge in Birmingham, Ala., shortly after leaving an Adolf Hitler birthday celebration.
"It's just another dead, homeless black man," the gang's leader, Bill Riccio, said afterward in defense of his followers. "If their entire life is messed up forever because one black homeless man lay dead, then I think that's a tragic waste."
Just this February, FBI agents arrested neo-Nazi skinhead Charles Marovskis in Avoca, Pa., for his role in the random murders of two homeless men in Tampa in 1998, when Marovskis was a member of the Tampa Blood and Honour skinhead group. His indictment said: "'Tampa Blood and Honour' members considered homeless persons as an inferior class of persons regardless of race. 'Bum rolling' was a term used by 'Tampa Blood and Honour' members to describe the activity of targeting and committing acts of violence against homeless persons." In April, a second suspect and member of Blood and Honour, Kenneth Hoover, pleaded guilty in the same attack, which allegedly involved many group members. As part of his plea agreement, Hoover told authorities that members involved received spider's web tattoos after the murders.
The same month, three members of the racist skinhead group Vinlanders Social Club — Timothy Dumas, Eric "the Butcher" Fairburn, and Joshua Kern — were arrested in Indiana for assaulting a homeless black man. The Vinlanders had helped raise funds for Blood and Honour's Marovskis in February.
Also in April, the last of four racist skinheads were sentenced to prison for their role in the murder of Randall Mark Townsend, a gentle homeless man beaten to death with baseball bats and steel-toed boots under a bridge in Tacoma, Wash. The March 23, 2003, attack was led by Kurtis Monschke, then the Washington state leader of Volksfront, a neo-Nazi group based in Oregon. A jury sentenced Monschke to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The two other men involved in the attack were sentenced in April to 30 years in prison, while a 22-year-old female confederate got almost 14 years. Prosecutors say the attack was carried out so the woman, Tristain Frye, could "earn" the right to wear red shoelaces.
But Is It 'Hate'?
Racist skinheads beating to death a randomly selected black homeless man is easy to define and recognize as a hate crime. But should the same rules apply when white skinheads kill a white transient for being an "inferior Aryan"? And what about white youths who aren't skinheads randomly attacking a white homeless man simply because he's easy prey? Is that a hate crime?
These are questions even homeless advocates struggle to answer.
"I don't know if it's based on hate as we traditionally think of the hate crime. I think it's more a dehumanization factor that plays an important role," says Sean Cononie, whose Helping People in America organization in Hollywood, Fla., is acknowledged in the NCH report as "the most active local organization nationwide doing work on the hate crimes/violence issue."
The federal Hate Crimes Sentencing Enhancement Act protects people on the basis of race, color, national origin, ethnicity, gender, disability and sexual orientation. NCH and other advocates for the homeless are pressing the federal government to add housing status to that list. But extending hate crime protection to the homeless is controversial, and opposition is growing. The California Association of Human Relations Organizations, an association of human rights groups, has come out against designating random attacks on the homeless as hate crimes. And Republican lawmakers in Florida last year voted down a homeless hate crimes bill that was named after Norris Gaynor, the victim in the Fort Lauderdale baseball bat murder.
"People don't beat each other up because they love each other," state Sen. Mike Bennett (R-Bradenton) told The Miami Herald, echoing an argument commonly made against all hate crimes legislation.
Similarly, this March, after the Maryland Senate approved a bill to add homelessness as a protected category under that state's hate crime laws, the Baltimore Examiner published an editorial titled, "Hate Crime Legislation Won't Help Homeless." It read, in part: "Religious groups and minorities, including those designated so by their sexual orientation, are also covered under the legislation — in other words, almost everyone. Isn't all crime hateful?" Maryland state Sen. E.J. Pipkin (R-Annapolis) said he voted against the bill because it was "undermining the original intent of the hate crimes law." Supporters of the proposed homeless bill in the Florida legislature point out that existing state law there already provides penalty enhancements for acts of violence committed against a wide array of victims based on their status — police officers, firefighters, emergency medical personnel, bus drivers, prison staffers, and even sports referees, teachers and code inspectors — but not the homeless.
But while Florida law increases penalties for criminal attacks on ambulance drivers and Little League umpires, it doesn't classify those attacks as hate crimes. And no one's arguing it should. So why are the homeless different?
Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, points out that for a crime to legally qualify as a hate crime in most states and on the federal level, the identifying factor of the victim, such as race or gender or religion, does not have to be the only reason they were targeted — just a substantial one.
"These attacks [on the homeless] are hate crimes because you have an identity characteristic being a significant motivating factor in the prejudicial selection of a target," says Levin, who has testified before several state legislatures on behalf of extending hate crime protection to the homeless. To support his argument, Levin points to the FBI's data on hate crime homicides between 1999 and 2005. According to the FBI, 82 murder victims during that period were targeted substantially because of their race, religion, sexual orientation, or ethnicity. During that same time period, 167 homeless people were murdered, not counting so-called "homeless-on-homeless" killings.
"The homeless are at an astronomical risk of attack compared to other people," says Levin.
But there is significant opposition to that view, and not only from people and groups who oppose all hate crime penalty enhancement laws on principle. Some critics of offering homeless people hate crime protection argue that homeless people are at increased risk of street violence primarily because they live on the streets, and that being homeless is often a lifestyle choice, not an immutable characteristic like race.
"People aren't born into homelessness," says Robin Tomas, president of the California Association of Human Relations Organizations. "But there are reasons why people fall into homelessness, such as drug addiction and unemployment. It's a status. The other categories covered by the hate crime bill … ethnicity, sexual orientation, are categories that we don't choose."
Harold Washington, the homeless man in St. Petersburg who was attacked outside the baseball stadium, admits that he's homeless by choice. "I really don't have to be homeless because my family got money. I wanted to really find out what low-life is … deal with the homeless and see what they was all about." But Levin and other supporters of extending hate crime protection to the homeless point out that religion is also a choice, yet religion is protected by hate crime laws.
"The notion that something is temporary and not necessarily something society would want to have around doesn't mean it is not worthy of protection," says Levin. "Most hate crimes are not committed by hardcore hatemongers. These attacks [on the homeless], like other hate crimes, involve individuals with latent and not necessarily deep prejudices, but are relying on negative stereotypes that help identify where their aggression should be directed."
The Un-Welcome Mat
"When a city passes laws targeting and singling out homeless people, it sends messages that the homeless are just low-lifes that need to be driven out of the cities," says Stoops.
Take Phoenix, Ariz., where there is no greater hater of the homeless than the desert sun. In the summer of 2005, 32 homeless people died on streets hot enough to fry eggs. During the summer of 2006, four homeless men died of heat exposure in one weekend.
Advocates for the homeless argue that the fact that homeless people die from heat exhaustion in the shadows of air-conditioned office buildings and shopping plazas with no resulting public outcry sends the same message as widely publicized police rousts and harsh anti-panhandling ordinances: that homeless people are worthless, which makes them fair game.
"When you have city ordinances that say people who are homeless are criminals, then the malcontent elements of society feel they have the license to attack them," says Eric Rubin, a St. Petersburg homeless advocate. "Anytime you stigmatize a group of people, then those on the fringe feel they deserve that license to attack."
According to Stoops, who monitors anti-homeless laws across the country, Florida historically is "one of the worst states for criminalizing homelessness." He points out an Orlando ordinance that limits feeding homeless people in public places. On April 4, undercover cops were sent to Orlando's Lake Eola Park, to arrest Eric Montanez for feeding 30 homeless people — five more than the city's 25-person limit.
Similar anti-feeding ordinances were recently passed in Dallas, Las Vegas and Wilmington, N.C.
"You can feed pigeons, dogs and squirrels, but God forbid you try to feed the homeless," Stoops says.
"Some attackers have the impression that they are carrying out a social good while having fun," says Levin. "The victimization rates are so significant that we have to make a specific statement to deter the conduct — not just because people think the homeless are worthless, but also because law enforcement will think they are worthless and not put attackers under any punishment." Gerald Murphy, a homeless man in a Hollywood, Fla., shelter, told the Intelligence Report that when he was jumped and robbed by four black men, the police he told about it didn't bother filling out a report.
"They got nothing else better to do than mess with a homeless person," says Murphy bitterly. "I been arrested for stupid stuff, like open container." During a March 16 visit to Fort Lauderdale, many homeless people interviewed by the Intelligence Report said they'd recently been arrested for violating the city's open container law. That same weekend, hundreds of St. Patrick's Day revelers walked the streets of downtown Ft. Lauderdale carrying open beer bottles and plastic cups filled with cocktails in plain view of police officers. Edward Overman, the chief of police in Deland, Fla., a small town near Daytona Beach, said that he resists pressure from business and home owners who often pressure him to crack down on the homeless.
"They want us to arrest them for just sitting on a bench," Overman said. "I say, 'If I start knocking them off the bench, then we might as well take the benches away and not let civilians sit there either.'"
Sean Cononie, who runs Helping People in America in Hollywood, said that young people need to hear from public officials more often that "being homeless is not against the law" because they're hearing too much of the opposite. "The mayor says, 'I don't want a homeless shelter in my city because it's going to ruin our city, lower real estate values, cause bums to hang around, and it's gonna get our kids molested,'" said Cononie. "Kids are reading these quotes in the paper and they see the news conferences. It sends them the message that it's alright to attack them — they're only homeless."