Monday, September 27, 2010

Hate Crimes Against Homeless People

Ohio Identified as the Third Most Dangerous State for Homeless People

Over the past eleven years (1999-2009), advocates and shelter workers around the country have received news reports of homeless men, women and even children being harassed, kicked, set on fire, beaten to death, and decapitated. A new report released by the National Coalition for the Homeless documents a rise in hate crimes against homeless people. In Ohio, the number of hate crimes directed towards the homeless population rose to 13 in 2009 making Ohio the third most dangerous state in the union. Currently, the federal government does not recognize the homeless population as a protected group, vulnerable to hate crimes. The report, Hate Crimes Against the Homeless: America’s Growing Tide of Violence, documents all the attacks (just under 120) with 43 incidents resulting in death in 2009.

The FBI classifies a hate crime as “A criminal offense committed against a person, property, or society that is motivated in whole or in part, by the offender’s bias.” In 2008, there were seven hate crimes in the United States against protected classes that lead to death according to FBI statistics while there were 27 hate crimes against homeless people that lead to deaths according to the NCH research.

The hate crimes report was released in August 2010, and classifies the most dangerous states for hate crimes against the homeless as those with fifteen or more acts of violence carried out against the homeless population in a year. In 2009, Ohio officials reported a serial killer targeting vulnerable homeless women and a number of attacks on campsites in Cincinnati. Ohio was identified as the third most dangerous state in the United States, and fourth most dangerous state in the last 11 years.

Perhaps the most widely publicized case in Ohio was that of Anthony Sowell, the alleged serial rapist and killer. According to police and prosecutors, Sowell targeted homeless women in the Cleveland area, and is currently waiting trial on these charges. Sowell is innocent until proven guilty, but police investigations allege that he would lure these women to his home with the promise of drugs or shelter. By the time Sowell was discovered, he had allegedly killed 11 homeless women, six victims in 2009 alone, and their bodies were found inside and around property in which Sowell was living. After his arrest, two survivors came forward stating they had been raped by Sowell.

Homeless persons often live a transient lifestyle, with inconsistent contact with family or friends, making the population an appealing target for criminals to exploit. It is known that many of the victims’ in this case where not reported missing for long periods of time; also, many victims are unwilling to report hate crimes to the police.

While cases like Sowell’s receive a great deal of media attention, many of the violent attacks of the homeless receive minimal exposure. In the past ten years, hate crimes against the homeless have occurred in ten of Ohio’s cities. Those attacks consisted of 43 non lethal attacks and 17 fatal attacks.

In 2009, Cincinnati police reported that two separate hate crimes were committed against two homeless gentlemen. One man was physically and verbally assaulted for being homeless. When police questioned the attacker, he responded with indifference saying, “He was just a bum, who cares?” The Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless cited this incident as a clear example of a hate crime. “The use of ‘bum’ clearly denotes a sense of inferiority,” said Josh Springs, executive director of the Cincinnati Coalition.

The second hate crime in Cincinnati in 2009 was even more violent. A homeless man, George Smock, was walking in front of the County Court House when four teenagers tried to kill him. Smock was doused in lighter fluid and set on fire by the teens. He neither knew, nor provoked his attackers. Onlookers extinguished the flames and saved Smock from severe injury or death. Although his attackers tried to take his life, Smock did not file a report immediately following the attack. When asked why, Smock replied, “I didn’t fill out a police report that night, which I should have done, but I’ve got to live out here.”

Interestingly, negative portrayals of the homeless receive a great deal of media attention and only stand to make the public more apathetic to the population. Movies like “Bumfights” can easily be viewed on You Tube. The “bum” is commonly used in film and television. The word “bum” degrades the population and implies that their struggles stem from laziness, not a complex web of societal barriers and holes in the social safety net. In addition, there is a correlation between the number of municipal laws directed at homeless people and the number of hate crimes directed at those experiencing homelessness.

Nationally, states are beginning to recognize the need for homeless people to be added as a protected class because of their vulnerability and fragility. The Hate Crimes Against the Homeless Statistics Act of 2009 is pending federal legislation currently before Congress. It was announced last week that there will be a Congressional Hearing in the US Senate Judiciary Committee to discuss the rise in hate crimes on September 29. This act would make the homeless population a protected group and raise the penalty for those attacking homeless individuals. This Act is sponsored by Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Congressman Dennis Kucinich and Congresswoman Marcia Fudge of Ohio. The City of Cleveland passed an ordinance in 2008, making repercussions for “intimidation” and harassment more severe if these crimes are perpetrated against an individual because of his/her homeless status. The Ohio legislature has re-introduced a bill (HB 509) to classify intimidation as an offense against homeless people in order to provide some additional protections.

The NCH report has extensive references of all the crimes that are documented across the nation against those experiencing homelessness. NCH has prepared a list of recommendations for states and local advocates of what they can do to protect homeless people from future attacks. Finally, the NCH Hate Crimes report provides model legislation for states and municipal governments to adopt in order to increase the punishments against those who are violent against those sleeping outside to try to begin to reduce hate crimes.

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