States Classify Attacks Against Homeless As 'Hate Crimes' To Curb Rising Violence

Attacks against homeless people are on the rise at an alarming rate and some states are turning to more stringent punishments to put an end to it.

Homeless people experienced a 23 percent increase in targeted attacks in 2013 compared to the year before, according to figures released by the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH). To help curb the violence against people living on streets, seven states have vowed to qualify such attacks as hate crimes, which carry harsher consequences, Al Jazeera America reported.

Last year, there were a total of 108 reported assaults against the homeless, 19 of which resulted in death. The year before, there were 88 reported attacks, 18 of which resulted in death, Michael Stoops, NCH director of community organizing, told The Huffington Post in March.

Alaska, California, Florida, Maine, Maryland, Rhode Island and Washington have committed to qualifying assaults against the homeless as hate crimes -- which currently protect people who are targeted based on race, ethnicity, national origin, religious, sexual orientation or disability.

"[These laws are] important to make statements that homeless people are not second-class citizens and that violence against them, brutal violence against them, will not be tolerated," Tulin Ozdeger, civil rights director for the National Law Center on Homeless & Poverty, told the Associated Press in 2010.

While advocates continue to press the need for such protections, it may not necessarily compute into less criminal acts.

In 2010, Florida declared attacks against homeless people as hate crimes, which come with heavier sentencing. A second-degree felony, for example, gets bumped to a first-degree felony, with the maximum prison sentence increased from 15 to 30 years, the Sun Sentinel reported.

The issue came to a head in January 2006 when a group of teens beat a homeless man to death with bats in downtown Fort Lauderdale and the assault was caught on security cameras, according to the Sun Sentinel.

But while law has been in place for nearly four years, Florida still had the second highest rate of reported attacks against homeless people last year.

Regardless of the figures, advocates say that such laws are vital in order to at least begin to change the stigma attached to homeless people.

In Albuquerque, New Mexico, for example, three teens were recently charged for beating two homeless Native Americans so severely, that their deceased bodies were nearly unrecognizable, according to the Associated Press.

Part of the problem, experts say, is that even the officials that are supposed to be guarding homeless people, actually perpetuate the violence, leaving homeless people reluctant to report crimes.

"There is a culture of excessive force and brutality with our police," Jennifer Metzler, executive director of Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless, told Al Jazeera. "I think that people feel … that nothing will be done, that they won’t be taken seriously, that they might risk access to services in other settings."

While New Mexico has yet to join other states in declaring an attack against a homeless person a hate crime, Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry has vowed to begin to try and help some of the most vulnerable homeless people in his city.

Earlier this month, Berry announced, in response to the killings, that he’ll be setting up a task force to address chronic homelessness among Native Americans, according to the Associated Press. They are on the streets longer than other groups and are more likely to be victimized.

"We’re going to try to take this tragedy and use it as a launching point for change," Berry told KRQE.

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