Does Rise In Killings of Homeless Signal a Decline in Our Values?

Over the past eleven years, there were more than double the number of homeless hate crime deaths than that of all the other "traditionally" protected hate crime classes combined.
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One of the most sought after commentators on hate violence against the homeless is a celebrity and author who lacks stage experience, an advanced degree, or even a law enforcement background. Rufus Hannah's celebrity, however, is not the kind that anyone would seek. When he was drunk and homeless, a toothless and disheveled Hannah was exploited by young filmmakers, who humiliated and injured him and others to make a wildly popular youth cult video series called Bumfights. The films, now viral on the web, have been mentioned numerous times by murderous youths from coast to coast as part of their inspiration for targeting the homeless in their communities for vicious attacks. Hannah now sober, employed and the co-author of a new book, " A Bum Deal" uses his celebrity to bring the plight of the homeless to legislators and students across the country.

"I am best known for the violence perpetrated against me and Vietnam veteran Donnie Brennan in the video called Bumfights....This violence caused us crippling injuries. I have double vision and equilibrium problems and will never be able to drive a motor vehicle. Donnie had his ankle and foot broken and has a rod and screws [implanted] and walks with a limp, always in pain."

However, the violence did not start or stop for the Army veteran when the cameras started rolling:

"When I was homeless and living on the streets of San Diego...someone approached me with a gun and pointed it in my face. Other times I witnessed older homeless people have their shopping carts flipped over, and all their belongings scattered on the street by teenagers. The teens would throw shoes and other items at the elderly homeless people and verbally taunt them. Another incident in La Mesa, California I was tormented by young teenagers who sprayed a fire extinguisher in my face while laughing at me."


If a society's well being is measured by its treatment of its most vulnerable residents, then, despite Hannah's efforts, America may be slipping. Last year as Maxim magazine's website "jokingly" urged its young male readers to "hunt the homeless" and "kill one for fun," hate homicides against the homeless spiraled to their highest level in a decade. According to a report released today by the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) 43 homeless souls were killed last year in bias motivated killings across the nation.

The table below shows that over the past eleven years, there were more than double the number of homeless hate crime deaths than that of all the other "traditionally" protected hate crime classes combined. The homeless data center on killings by domiciled perpetrators that are bias motivated and attempts to exclude acts of insurance fraud, drugs, robbery, personal animus, homeless-on-homeless events and other non-hate crime related incdents.

Hate crimes are a qualitatively unique form of victimization that center on victim identity and discriminatory selection. In 2008, the last available year with officially released data, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reported a slight increase in the number of reported hate crime as well as in the number of participating police agencies. The FBI data which exclude the homeless counted 7,783 hate crimes in the United States and seven homicides in 2008.

The just released NCH report on homeless victims, which excludes non hate-related crimes, paints a chilling picture of the state of discriminatory violence against one of America's most vulnerable and despised populations. NCH director Neil Donovan explained, "Our report is meant to provide merely a sampling of homeless hate crimes over the past year, in dedication to the many thousands of hidden and unknown homeless victims who now live in a constant state of trauma and fear." The NCH found that there were 1,074 acts of bias motivated violence from 1999 through last year, 288 of which were homicides. While underreporting by victims and police make the non-homicide data appear to be a severe undercount, it nonetheless chronicles a vast array of brutality from 47 states, DC and Puerto Rico. Cases involve everything from mutilation, drowning, rape, blunt force trauma, shootings, stabbings, and setting victims afire. Donovan further observed, "It's unimaginable that the mere state of someone being un-housed can cause another to have feelings of hostility and animosity as strong as to demand an act of [this] brutality." Criminologists regard homicide data as the most reliably reported violent crime.

Last year the trend in anti-homeless hate violence of young male perpetrators hunting down older adults continued. In 2009 80% of the identified perpetrators were under thirty years old and 98% were male. The perpetrators range from youth with no criminal records to urban gang members to neo-Nazis. One third of the reported incidents last year resulted in death, up from one in four in prior years. Over the last decade 70% of the homeless victimized were in their 40s and 50s. Since 1999 the states with the highest number of hate incidents against the homeless are California, (213), Florida (177), Texas (64), and Ohio (59). Last year, California had the most hate violence cases with 27, followed by Florida, 16; Ohio, 13; Oregon, 8; and Texas, 7.

Hate crimes involve certain status characteristics that relate to one's actual or perceived identity. They place certain groups of people at a heightened risk of criminal victimization above and beyond that of the general population. Opinion polls show support for hate crime laws in general at over 70% and all but about five states have these laws on the books. The Shepard-Byrd Hate Crime Prevention Act signed by President Obama last October expanded the nation's most broadly applicable federal hate crime law to cover additional categories such as a victim's actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability. While the homeless were not covered by the Shepard-Byrd law, several jurisdictions including Florida, Maryland, Maine, Rhode Island, the District of Columbia and Alaska have added the homeless to their hate crime laws and others such as New York, Illinois, Ohio, Virginia, South Carolina and California are considering similar reforms. Maryland Senator Ben Cardin is proposing legislation to expand federal data collection to cover homelessness.

From a purely criminological perspective physical attacks against the homeless in this country are indistinguishable from other hate crime-with one major exception. While offender characteristics, motive, deterrence, injury and weaponry are basically analogous, prevalence differs significantly. The homeless appear to face a rate of victimization that far exceeds that of traditionally covered groups. The more reliable statistics arising from homicide data and victimization studies indicate that the homeless are among the nation's most criminally vulnerable population. Our Center in conjunction with NCH has found that between 1999 and 2008 (the last year that official federally collected data is available) there were 103 homicides classified as hate crimes by the FBI. During that same period, NCH reported 288 deaths that were a result of homeless-directed hate violence. This is more than twice the number of hate crimes reported against currently protected groups--and does not even take into account the fact that the homeless population is relatively small compared to other covered groups listed in official hate crime data reports.

Rufus' coauthor and friend Barry Soper, who rescued him off the streets and got him a job,
has his own suggestions for the problem. "If we are going to end hate violence against the homeless it will be not only through studies and uniform hate crime laws with severe penalties, but also through educational and cultural efforts that promote tolerance and understanding of those who suffer silently within our midsts."

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