As Violence Against Homeless Rises, Congress Considers Legislation To Protect Them

Until 2004, when he turned 29, David Pirtle believed he had escaped the fate that had befallen his sister. He was managing several restaurants, taking care of his mom, getting up every morning. Then he began hearing voices. He realized there wasn't much time. His sister suffered from schizophrenia and he knew what came next. Soon enough he was sleeping on a street in New York. One night, he was jarred awake by someone kicking or striking him in his back. He took several more blows to the back of his head. He curled into a ball and someone cracked his teeth. After the attackers ran off, he climbed through a basement window into an abandoned building. He stayed there for three days. The voices got louder. "I didn't understand what was done or what was going on," he recently recalled.

This week, Pirtle told a version of this story to the congressional committee that oversees the legislative concerns of the the homeless. The gathering had been organized by the National Coalition for the Homeless, a large advocacy organization that has been pressuring Congress to add homeless people to the list of minorities covered by federal hate-crime legislation. According to the group, incidents of violence against the homeless are on the rise.

The group, which says it's the only organization to collect data on such incidents, counted nearly 120 violent attacks against homeless people in 2010, up from less than half that number just eight years before. Twenty-four of those attacks were fatal, as compared with eight in 2003. And as the organization notes in a recent report, those numbers probably fall far short of conveying the true scope of the violence. It's hard enough to count homeless people, let alone keep a tally of the crimes against them, especially when an accurate tally would depend on there being some degree of trust and cooperation between homeless people and cops.

Why the apparent increase? Some advocates and victims invoke the popularity of "Bum Fights," a series of videos showing homeless people fighting with each other for alcohol or money, which found a home on the shelves of major stores like Target and Best Buy in the mid 2000s. After stores pulled the videos off the shelves in 2006, a copycat subculture emerged on the Internet. In this more recent iteration of the genre, the attackers tend to be middle-class teenagers.

That probably shouldn't come as a big surprise. Nevertheless, the attacks received a lot of attention, and few were more widely covered than the 2006 killing of Norris Gaynor, a 45-year-old homeless man in Broward County, Fla., who was beaten to death by two bat-wielding teenagers. The Broward Sheriff's Office launched a campaign to get the state legislature to do something about these crimes, and in 2010, then Gov. Charlie Crist (R) signed a bill making Florida the largest state -- and one of the first in the country -- to protect the homeless under its hate-crime statute. Both the state House and the Senate voted for the bill by a wide margin, and it wasn't long before national advocates were asking the sheriff's office for guidance. Captain Rick Wierzbicki, a Broward County officer, was among the witnesses who spoke at the congressional hearing on Tuesday, and his advice for advocates boiled down to this: If you want law-makers in both parties to take you seriously, you'd better get law-enforcement agencies involved.

So it was especially disappointing for advocates to learn of the latest development concerning the Broward County sherriff department. In May, the Fort Lauderdale, Fla. government passed an ordinance banning panhandling in parks, city parking lots, government buildings, and outside of sidewalk restaurants. The measure is part of a nationwide trend that advocates describe as the "criminalization" of homelessness. Cities around the country have been cracking down on camping, loitering, urinating in public, sitting or lying on the sidewalk and vagrancy. About ten years ago, many of these same cities embarked on what seemed at the time like a radical and hopeful experiment. They adopted "ten-year plans" to end homelessness, an idea that found favor in the last two presidential administrations. But by the lights of some groups, including the National Coalition for Homeless, neither administration committed nearly enough money to the effort, and chronic homelessness remains as prevalent as before. The result, said Neil Donovan, the head of the National Coalition for homeless, is a nationwide epidemic of "compassion fatigue."

"The police departments and the politicians said, 'You know what? We sang your song for ten years, and we're tired of it, and our business community is up in arms, and we're going to criminalize it,'" Donovan said.

And perhaps there's some connection, he added, between such measures and some of the violent assaults. As David Pirtle said, "If you treat someone like a criminal then it's going to rub off on the rest of society."