Hate Crimes

By Margo Pierce

John Johnson needed 18 stitches in his head and his girlfriend was in fear for her life after an April 10 attack at a camp in Cincinnati where they lived. Johnson, 52, says he was sleeping under a highway overpass at about 3 A.M. when four men attacked him.

“I was awakened by four young men telling me to exit the property,” he says. “As I was complying with them, they started beating me with pipes and bats upside the head and up and down the left side of my body.”

Johnson’s attack is part of a bigger pattern of abuse that is becoming more apparent across the country. Homeless people all over North America are being set on fire, beaten, stabbed, shot, strangled, brutalized by police, harassed and raped. Many of these crimes go unreported, and the ones that do come to light might not necessarily be recorded as hate crimes.That means statistics for tracking the violence in order to find ways to address it are inadequate.

“People are just being targeted because they are homeless. It’s a safe crime, it’s almost like vandalizing a street sign,” says John Joyce, co-executive director of the Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project (www.rihap.org). “The victim doesn’t come and tell the police about it. They’re ashamed of where they’re at in their life right now.

“I can’t understand why, but it’s accepted that it’s OK to assault homeless individuals. It’s just bigotry at its best. You’re carrying your life on your back, in your backpack; and people see that and for some odd reason people want to assault people who are more vulnerable.”

During testimony before the Rhode Island Legislature on a bill to require tracking crimes against the homeless and police training on homelessness, Joyce played the Bum Hunter video to show how attacking homeless people has become a form of entertainment. The bill passed the state house and senate and is expected to be signed into law.

“The victims don’t really want to come forward because the way the police departments think and the community thinks: ‘No one’s going to believe me anyway if I do get assaulted.’ If the homeless community here in Rhode Island knows that the police departments will listen to their complaints, they’ll come forward,” Joyce says.

The complexities of social attitudes influence all facets of government in the execution of their role as protector of the common good. This is reflected in an opening statement in the report “Homelessness, Victimization and Crime: Knowledge and Actionable Recommendations,” presented in 2008 by the Institute for the Prevention of Crime at the University of Ottawa.

“In 1998, the mayors of some of the largest cities in Canada declared homelessness a national disaster,” the report says. “Since then, studies conducted in a number of Canadian cities provide evidence that the number of homeless people on the streets is increasing and consequently that the demands on shelters and other services can be expected to rise. … Those without adequate shelter are more likely than the housed to be victims of violence and, for women, victims of sexual assault.”

What the report can’t provide is uniform, consistent data on the number of crimes committed against homeless people across Canada. Nor can the U.S. government provide that same data. Beyond victims’ reluctance to report, another problem is the apparent indifference of law enforcement to collecting the information. The 2007 Hate Crimes Statistics, the most recent annual report compiled by the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Program, illustrates this point.

More than 13,000 law-enforcement agencies provided data about bias-motivated crime, with 2,025 agencies (15.3 percent) reporting 7,624 incidents.

“The remaining 84.7 percent of the participating agencies reported that no hate crimes occurred in their jurisdictions,” the report says.

Some states, such as Mississippi—with a deep-rooted past in racial violence—reported zero incidents of hate crimes in the entire state. Delving into what makes a hate crime could begin to explain why jurisdictions don’t want to report these crimes.

The thing that differentiates a hate crime from others is that it is “based on a characteristic or condition of the victim” by a perpetrator who “seeks to not only commit the crime against the particular victims, but to send a message about that victim to the larger community,” according to Sherrilyn Ifill, professor of law at the University of Maryland and a faculty member of the Peter Jennings Project for Journalists and the Constitution.

How we protect, or fail to protect, vulnerable populations in our communities is a demarcation of our progress in achieving a positive image.

“This is really, in many ways for me, a very critical issue…of democracy and freedom—that is, your ability to walk on the street and not be physically attacked for who you are,” Ifill says. “When we want to talk about freedom and we want to talk about democracy, we tend to think about voting. I think many people take for granted the assumption that you can walk on the street unmolested so long as you’re not committing a crime.”

The combination of the recent rise in homelessness as a result of the economic downturn and a rise in the reported cases of violent deaths of homeless people has resulted in greater awareness about the risks to people living outdoors, also known as “rough sleepers.”

“The risk of victimization is higher among homeless persons who live on the street as opposed to in shelters … 78 percent of rough sleepers had been victims of crime during their most recent period of sleeping on the street; however, only 21 percent of these incidents were reported to police,” says the report by the University of Ottawa.

National newspapers such as the New York Times and USA Today, and wire services such as the Associated Press, have recently reported on hate crimes against the homeless in Cincinnati, Ohio, bringing broader attention to the problem.

In the case of John Johnson, three of the four attackers that assaulted him have been captured. Charged with felonious assault are Michael Hesson, 24; U.S. Army Private Riley Feller, 24, stationed at Fort Knox, Ky.; and Spec. Travis Condor, 25, stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C. A fourth suspect, also stationed at Fort Bragg, has not yet been caught.

“In Cincinnati, hate crimes against homeless people definitely seem to be on the rise,” Josh Spring, executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless says. “The National Coalition for the Homeless has been tracking hate crimes … because they saw a turning point where they were occurring more and people were being targeted as a popular thing to do.”

“Hate, Violence, and Death on Main Street USA,” a 2008 report, is the most recent report by the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) on the subject. NCH is working with the Southern Poverty Law Center to lobby for national legislation to amend the Hate Crimes Prevention Act to include homelessness as a classification reported by law enforcement. Brian Levin is director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University and is a former staffer at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“As a criminologist,” Levin said, “there are certain types of data that we rely upon, and homicide data is one of them; and what we’re seeing is that more homeless people (are) murdered in apparent hate crimes than all of the other traditional hate crime victims combined in any given year. And what I mean is race, religion, sexual orientation, disability, etc.,” Levin says. “If that’s the case, then we really have a problem where the law should protect them. And we should have a federal law reflect it, because in many areas the homeless are not treated as victims—they’re treated as criminals themselves.”

The perverse reality of homelessness is that being victimized by hate crimes makes further victimization likely. Noting that homelessness “disrupts important social bonds and impairs personal networking” for successful interpersonal interaction and efforts to leave the streets, the NCH report explains that this means many people are trapped in that environment.

“Victimization on the street is psychologically distressing and can lead to depression and low self-esteem, which in turn contributes to apathy and feelings of futility, making it more difficult to escape further abuse,” the University of Ottawa report says.

Both legislation and education are needed, according to Levin.

“The same types of offenders are committing the same hate crimes against the homeless that we’ve seen with other victim groups; yet it appears, from the limited data that we have, that the homeless are among the most violently victimized of any victim group out there,” he says. “Therefore, we need not only education, but … training for social services and law enforcement as well as for young people in schools. … The more that we can say that this is not socially acceptable and institutionalize that, as well as institutionalizing the message that there might very well be punishment as well, I think serves a later good.”

Helping people get off the streets makes for fewer targets, but it won’t address the essential issue, according to Ifill.

“I think people want to believe that hate crimes are a thing of the past, and understandably so,” she says. “But the reality is that they’re not, and that only by our attention and only by very vigorous law enforcement response—prosecution by prosecutors of hate crimes, reporting not only by law enforcement official but by citizens who see and know when hate crimes occur—are we going to be able to get our hands around this.” • ©www.streetnewsservice.org