Despite a decrease in the U.S. homeless population, new research by an advocacy group for the homeless indicates an alarming increase in violent crimes targeting those living on the streets.
In 2013, homeless Americans experienced a 23 percent increase in violence compared with the year before, according to preliminary figures by the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH). The U.S. homeless population declined over the same period, with 610,000 people going without shelter on any given day in 2013 — 20,000 fewer than in 2012.
The homeless “are targeted solely because of their circumstances,” coalition director Jerry Jones told Al Jazeera. “People who are in shelters and marginalized are often preyed upon.”
Because the NCH bases its research on reported crimes covered in news media, the actual number of violent attacks targeting the homeless may be much higher, since many go unreported.
Jones said he is unable to determine whether the reported increase in violence is due to more attacks targeting the homeless or more reporting of crimes.
While Florida has long led the nation in violent crimes against the homeless, California took the lead in 2013. The Golden State has the largest homeless population in the United States, with more than 130,000 people living on the streets, according to an estimate by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Nationwide, both civilians and authorities have perpetrated violence against the homeless.
Earlier this week, residents of Albuquerque, N.M., and rights groups expressed outrage over the fatal shooting of a homeless man by city police. A video released by the Albuquerque Police Department captures the March 16 shooting of James Boyd, a 38-year-old homeless man police sought to detain for camping in an unauthorized area of the Albuquerque foothills.
In Seattle on March 15, two off-duty firefighters and a female companion attacked a homeless man sleeping on a memorial for fallen firefighters in Pioneer Square, according to local police.
Witnesses said the woman yelled at the man for sleeping at the memorial and then kicked him. The firefighters then joined in, kicking and hitting him with a stick. The victim defended himself with a knife, wounding one of the firefighters.
The perception problem
To explain violence against the homeless, experts point to the public’s negative perceptions of the community. Beliefs that the homeless have chosen to live marginal lifestyles or regularly participate in criminal activity are widespread. The destitute appearance of many homeless also makes the public uncomfortable, according to Amy Donley, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Central Florida, author of the 2008 book “The Perception of Homeless People: Important Factors in Determining Perceptions of the Homeless as Dangerous.”
“Many people are simply afraid of the homeless, or maybe more specifically, people are afraid of what they perceive the homeless population to be,” Donley writes. “The most visible homeless are sometimes easily recognizable due to such negative attributes as being dirty, smelling of alcohol or carting a multitude of belongings, they cannot easily blend in with people around them.”
Some who target the homeless are “mission offenders, who believe they are on a mission to cleanse the world of a particular evil,” says the NCH. “Others are scapegoat offenders, who violently act out their resentment toward the perceived growing economic power of a particular racial or ethnic group.”
Donley told Al Jazeera that the problem is not necessarily with how average citizens treat the homeless but with an increase in “laws and ordinances that criminalize behaviors associated with homelessness — sleeping outside, loitering, etc.”
“These laws devalue homeless people and further distance them from mainstream society,” she said, adding that the visible homeless who are not in shelters “are the people that society most fears, and yet they are the most vulnerable of homeless people, in terms of physical attacks.”
One possible reason for the increase in reported attacks is that as the economy recovers from recession, empathy and sympathy for the homeless may be on a decline.
During the recession, “people reported that they had a friend lose a home or become homeless, which impacted people’s perceptions,” Donley said.
Homeless hate crimes
In an attempt to curb targeted violence against the homeless, advocates are pushing to have such attacks defined as hate crimes on local and federal levels.
The U.S. Department of Justice defines a hate crime as “violence of intolerance and bigotry, intended to hurt and intimidate someone because of their race, ethnicity, national origin, religious, sexual orientation or disability.”
Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino, said, “It’s important to address these crimes for what they are, as hate crimes.”
“What we are seeing is a shift from fatal racial attacks to homophobic attacks and now attacks against the homeless,” he told Al Jazeera.
“If you look at the characteristics of both offenders and victims traditionally in the hate crime category, the homeless really are a category that fits,” Levin said. “From the motivation of attackers to the types of weapons that are used to the ages and types of offenders, it really is the newest generation in a rather disturbing tradition of attacks on vulnerable oppressed minorities.”
Maryland, California, Maine, Florida and Alaska have expanded their definition of hate crimes to include the homeless.
Advocates for the homeless were able to argue their case at a Senate hearing in September 2010, but because of political deadlock in Washington, D.C., a bill has yet to be presented for a vote.
“Congress and so many state legislations are so divided, it’s difficult to get virtually any policy to the legislative agenda,” Levin said, adding that the homeless community “has traditionally not been well represented politically.”