Roberto E. Rosales / Albuquerque Journal / AP

Violence grows against homeless, sparking push for hate crime status

Seven states already attach stiffer punishments, as ‘steady stream of attacks’ targets vulnerable US population

A 12-year-old accused of shooting a 54-year-old homeless man on July 28 in Jacksonville, Florida.

In Syracuse, New York, two young teenagers accused of throwing rocks at a homeless woman on July 31 after ripping open a tent she shared with others.

In Cape Coral, Florida, a 13-year-old held without bond after a homeless man was stabbed to death Aug. 5.

And in Albuquerque, New Mexico, two homeless Navajo men, unrecognizable and beaten to death on July 19, with three teens being held on $5 million bond each after being charged with murder and a range of other crimes.

Unfortunately, violence against the homeless isn’t unusual. “There has definitely been a steady stream of attacks,” said Michael Stoops, director of community organizing for the National Coalition for the Homeless and lead author of a report issued in June that described the problem in shocking detail.

“It goes on and on and on,” Stoops added.

Stoops and other advocates for the homeless cite the spate of recent cases as justification to add crimes against the homeless to hate crime laws in New Mexico and nationally.

The Albuquerque incident is also giving rise to questions about the relationship between the homeless and the police in a city where a U.S. Justice Department investigation found police used a pattern of excessive force against citizens. And Navajo tribal leaders are investigating the beating deaths and the city’s homeless services for potential disparities when it comes to the treatment of Native Americans.

In that case, Allison Gorman and Kee Thompson were discovered beaten to death in a vacant lot where they had been sleeping. The homeless man who called police pointed out a nearby house where he said teenagers who had been beating up the homeless lived. An Albuquerque police detective went to the home and interviewed Gilbert Tafoya, 15; Nathaniel Carrillo, 16; and Alex Rios, 18. The three individually confessed to being present when the men were beaten, though the older teens denied participating and blamed the others.

According to an arrest report, Tafoya told the detective the three “have attacked over 50 people since they moved into their new house a few months ago. [He said] this was the first time they went this far in attacking someone.” 

Those previous beatings apparently went unreported to police, in part because of brutality accusations against the department. The Justice Department investigation began in November 2012 after a series of complaints about police killing people who posed “a minimal threat.” Most of those killings were determined to be unconstitutional.

That report came less than a month after two Albuquerque policemen shot a homeless man in an incident recorded by their helmet cameras. The video quickly went viral.

‘Bias against the homeless’

“There is a culture of excessive force and brutality with our police,” said Jennifer Metzler, executive director of Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless. “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.”

Stoops said seven states ­— Alaska, California, Florida, Maine, Maryland, Rhode Island and Washington — have added the homeless to hate crimes laws that increase sentences when a person attacks someone because of his or her race, religion, sexual orientation or other circumstances.

“There’s only a small minority of people who have a bias against the homeless population,” Stoops said. “We find that the perpetrators come from all economic classes.”

Previous efforts to add the homeless to New Mexico’s hate crime law have failed but will be revived in next year’s legislative session.

Gorman’s and Thompson’s homicides could fall under the race and ethnicity portion of New Mexico’s hate crime law because they were Navajo. The Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, part of the Navajo legislative branch, is investigating the deaths.

“Obviously we’re appalled at what happened,” said Lauren Bernally, a policy analyst and interim director of the commission. “Nobody should be beaten this way. Nobody should be treated this way.”

Looking for solutions

But the phenomenon of violence against the homeless is not straightforward. Nor can it be treated in isolation from broader social issues, advocates say. “The majority of violent crimes against the homeless are perpetrated by other homeless people,” Stoops said. “We recognize that. That’s why we support getting housing for people, so they’ll be less vulnerable.”

Metzler said there also needs to be much more community support for housing, health care and other needs. “The solution to homelessness is that we end it,” she said. “We create [homelessness] by our policies and our choices in how we allocate community resources.”

Still, Stoops’ organization has identified 1,437 acts of violence against the homeless by nonhomeless people from 1999 to 2013, with 357 fatalities. This summer’s violence in Albuquerque and elsewhere is a shocking anomaly, he said. “Never have we had so many attacks in such a short time period,” he said. “The perpetrators are getting younger.”

Metzler questioned how young people could end up committing such violence. “I don’t know much about those kids,” she said. “What happened in their lives?” While their fate will be decided in court, she and others are focusing on what’s next for the homeless community. “I don’t have all the answers to this. We’re all a little shaken right now.”

Bernally said raising awareness about the homeless and their needs should be a first concern. She said many Native Americans go to cities such as Albuquerque looking for better economic opportunities and instead end up on the street.

“It kind of disturbs me that the assumption out there in the general public is that many of the homeless are just drunks, they’re alcoholics,” she said. “That’s not true. There needs to be a lot of public education.”

Reported violent crimes against homeless people in 2012, by state

Source: National Coalition for the Homeless

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