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Counting hate crimes is the first step

 Streetvibes (USA) 25 October 2019

Last year, over a dozen street papers in the US ran a report on hate crimes against homeless people. Now, the US congress is putting the topic on the agenda. “When I hear the stories about murders, assaults and rape, I ask myself, ‘Is this really America?’ (3453 Words) - By Margo Pierce

Street Vibes_US Congress considers tracking attacks on homeless people

U.S. President Barack Obama talks to James Byrd's sisters Louvon Harris (L) and Betty Byrd Baotner (2nd R) and Matthew Shepard's mother Judy Shepard at a reception commemorating the enactment of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act at the White House in Washington October 28, 2019. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

"When I hear the horrific stories about murders, assault and rapes committed against our nation's homeless, I ask myself, 'Is this really America?' When I hear the story of Norris Gaynor being beaten to death by baseball bats while sleeping on a park bench. I ask myself, 'Where's all this violence coming from?' When I hear about John Mc Graham being doused with gasoline and set ablaze, I was shocked and horrified this could happen to a fellow human being and just wonder where we are heading."

This was part of the opening statement by U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Maryland), a member of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs. The statement was part of  a Sept .29 hearing, "Crimes Against America's Homeless: Is the Violence Growing?" A five-person panel presented testimony regarding the Hate Crimes Against the Homeless Statistics Act (S.B. 1765). Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) is a co-sponsor of the bill, which would require the FBI to add attacks on homeless people to the data it collects on hate crimes.

The Hate Crimes Statistic Acts of 1990 requires the Justice Department to track crimes motivated by race, religion, sexual orientation and ethnicity. Disability was added in 1994 and gender or gender identity were included later. The new bill does not add additional punishments for hate crimes against the homeless.

"I want the federal government to track how many crimes are being committed against homeless just because they are homeless," Cardin said. "The best way to develop a strategy to deal with a problem is to make sure that you have accurate information in order to be able to act."

Pointing to the limited statistics collected by the National Coalition for the Homeless over the past 11 years, Cardin characterized hate crimes against the homeless as "pervasive and growing." The report indicates that 43 homeless people were killed as a result of hate crimes in 2009, making it the deadliest year to date. During that same year approximately 640,000 people were homeless on any given night, according to the latest report to Congress by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"Here's what we do know: violence is occurring against this population. We know that the un-housed population is growing. One could make an educated guess that these two facts may lead to more victims," Cardin said. "I don't want to guess - I want to get the facts."

'Hunt for homeless'

The effort to clarify what hate crimes are and the importance of this legislation fell to Erik Luna, a professor at Washington and Lee University School of Law and an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute. Quoting the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program, which establishes the guidelines and procedures necessary for collecting data, Luna began by defining the crime itself.

"The UCR guidelines describe a hate crime as a 'criminal offense committed against a person or property which is motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender's bias.' In turn, bias is defined as a 'preformed negative opinion or attitude toward a group of persons based on their race, religion, disability, sexual orientation or ethnicity/national origin.' The guidelines then provide a series of criteria that might support a finding of bias," Luna said. "All told, the guidelines attempt to provide some type of standards for data collection and a basis for subsequent scrutiny of this information."

He took issue with some of the reporting by the National Coalition for the Homeless in its latest annual report, "Hate Crimes Against the Homeless: America's Growing Tide of Violence," published in August. Luna said that some of the 43 deaths reported were unsubstantiated, as the report itself acknowledges. The methodology for the data collection is inconsistent and therefore unreliable, he said. These facts support the need for data gathering by the FBI, according to Luna.

Cardin introduced U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) as "the voice of many people who otherwise would not be heard in the chambers of Congress." She spoke in favor of the legislation.

"Between 1999 and 2010 there were more than 1,000 bias-motivated attacks committed against the homeless; 291 of these attacks were homicides," Johnson said. "This is more than twice the number of homicides committed in all other hate-group categories combined. A misconception is that these attacks happen to belligerent bums. However, many of these individuals were sought out by their attackers. Some victims never even spoke to their attacker before they were killed."

Johnson gave two examples of hate crimes committed in 2009, including a wheelchair-bound homeless woman in Seattle who was repeatedly raped by an attacker who said, "I can rape you and get away with it. …You're homeless? No one cares about you." Near the University of Texas at El Paso, four unknown men set a 41-year-old homeless man on fire. He survived the attack but "lives with serious burns."

"The federal government has fallen behind the states on this issue," Johnson said. "Currently, there are four states who already recognize homelessness as a category of hate crime. Several more have legislation pending. These are not simply Democratically run states. Florida had a Republican-elected governor and legislature at the time their homeless hate crimes bill was signed into law.

"If Congress continues to not take a stance on this issue, we send the message that we are willing to look the other way. Treating homeless individuals rudely or inhumanely is seen as acceptable by far too many Americans. It is the one group where it is still acceptable in most circles to disparage. How do we end that if even Congress is unwilling to treat these individuals equally?"

Before going onto the next round of testimony, Cardin quoted an advertisement in "a popular men's magazine": "Hunt for homeless. Kill one for fun. We're 87 percent sure it's legal."

'Protect all Americans equally'

Law enforcement officers are used to seeing the worst of human behavior. While they can be perceived as hardened by the constant barrage of violence in their work, they are also the most well-informed about criminal activity and how to develop strategies to deal with it. Richard Wierzbicki, commander of the Hate Crimes/Anti-Bias Task Force of the Broward County, Florida, Sheriff's Office in Florida, testified that data is the best place to begin.

"I am a longstanding member of the nation's law enforcement community with over 32 years of public service and can attest to our profession's interest in advancing strategies that enhance the prevention, investigation and prosecution of crimes committed against the homeless population, including crimes motivated by bias," Wierzbicki said. "Rigorous and widespread collection, reporting and analysis of bias-motivated crime data is one such solution. … That is why the Broward County Sheriff's Office, the largest accredited sheriff's office in the United States, supports the legislation."

Wierzbicki also gave examples of homeless people who have been attacked in his community, including one that was videotaped and posted on YouTube.

"The availability of data about bias-motivated crimes is instrumental in inspiring community action to protect various population groups subjected to bias and is critical to law-enforcement agencies for developing plans of action, deploying resources and measuring our progress," he said. "Take our experience in Broward. I lead the Hate Crimes/Anti-Bias Task Force created in 2008 … as a direct response to data in the Florida Attorney General's annual hate-crimes report, which indicated that our county - Broward County - led the state in reported hate crimes.

"The data told us where the crimes were occurring, who was being targeted, and why they were being attacked. Based on the data, we were then able to decide how and where to deploy resources to combat hate. Regrettably, our attorney general's hate-crimes report - no different than similar reports in other states - did not tell us anything about bias-motivated crimes against the homeless population because such data is not collected as part of uniform crime reporting, even though those of us who have worked the beat know full well that such crimes occur. By lacking such data, our task force simply could not plan a meaningful response to bias-motivated crimes against our large homeless population."

Wierzbicki said that the legislation will not create an "undue burden" on law enforcement and that the data collection is critical for ensuring public safety.

"It is my strong conviction that it must become standard practice for all law-enforcement agencies to vigorously collect data on the number and types of incidents of bias-motivated crimes against homeless victims," he said. "When the homeless population is left out of national hate-crime data collection and reporting, we fail in our responsibility to protect all Americans equally."

'Almost a sport'

But not everyone was in agreement during the hearing. David B. Muhlhausen introduced himself as a research fellow in empirical policy analysis with the Heritage Foundation but immediately distanced himself from his credentials, stating "The views I express in this testimony are my own and should not be construed as representing any official position of the Heritage Foundation."

"While every case of a violent act committed against homeless person is tragic and should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, the prevalence of these crimes do not rise to a level that requires formal data collection by the federal government," Muhlhausen said.

He cited the conclusion - "deadliest year in a decade" - in the annual report by the National Coalition for the Homeless.

"By the collation's own count there were only 43 … homicides in 2009. To properly understand the prevalence of these murders as a percentage of all murders reported by the Federal Bureau of Investigation: In 2009 the FBI counted 15,241 murders in the United States," Muhlhausen said. "The 43 murders counted by the National Coalition for the Homeless represents 0.28 percent of all murders reported by the FBI. Conversely, all other murders accounted for 99.72 percent of the total. Needless to say, the number of murders of homeless by domiciled individuals is a minuscule fraction of total murders."

Muhlhausen challenged the need for collecting data related to "perceived social problems."

"When Congress considers the need for collecting data on any social phenomena, the nature of the evidence presented to Congress should be instrumental to the decision-making process," he said. "A wrong assessment of the evidence can lead Congress to waste valuable resources. An objective and fair analysis of the data presented in the collation simply does not provide support for the need for the Hate Crimes Against the Homeless Statistics Act.

"While some may argue that the lack the of reliable and objective data on the number of crimes committed against the homeless by domiciled individuals is justification enough for federal intervention, such logic leads the federal government down the unending road of collecting data on any perceived social problem, whether the problem warrants attention by the Federal government. The Hate Crimes against the Homeless Statistics Act of 2009 is unnecessary."

Cardin was surprised that Muhlhausen testified against the bill - he said he was expecting to hear testimony in support - and responded by turning Muhlhausen's point back on him.

"I appreciate you mentioning the statistics of the advocacy community," Cardin said. "The issue is whether we have the same numbers as to the number of people who are victimized because they're homeless versus the other statistical information we have about violent crime, which is collected in a different manner. It seems to me we're comparing apples to oranges.

"The debate today … is to decide whether we have adequate information to make judgments."

Cardin pointed to the ease with which this data could be collected: Wierzbicki said it would be as simple as adding a check box with "homeless" as a category, in the same way that law enforcement already identifies hate crimes against religious, ethnic, gender and other protected groups.

"I applaud your efforts with the Hate Crimes/Anti-Bias Task Force," Cardin said. "You have recognized that you have an issue that you need to deal with in Broward County. … I take it that you are seeing crimes, violent crimes committed against individuals solely because they're homeless."

"Correct," Wierzbicki said.

"They're not being targeted for robbery," Cardin said. "They're not being targeted for an anger assault. They're being targeted because they are being perceived by the attacker as a worthy victim because they are homeless."

"The beatings in Broward County … it was almost a sport and the attacks were very violent," Wierzbicki said. "The research shows that the attacks on homeless are more violent because the attackers view them as sub-human. They have no place to retreat."

Cardin returned to Muhlhausen and asked if he'd object to having "uniform national information" on status crimes related to race, religion or homelessness that goes beyond types of crimes. Muhlhausen said he agrees that data collection is a good idea but doubts that the report by the National Coalition for the Homeless "rises to the level" of "requiring national legislation."

"I do not oppose collecting the basic information," he said. "What I'm concerned about is that the data presented in a way to suggest that there's a rising tide of violence and in fact there is no tide."

"We don't know that," Cardin said.

"Based on the evidence that we have," Muhlhausen said.

"If you base it on the evidence of the advocacy community, then we do have a rising tide," Cardin countered. "We do have a problem, that there has been an increased amount of violence. It reminds me of people who say we shouldn't try to stop war because we can't stop all wars. We can't fight for human rights because we can't end all human rights abuses."

"The fact is that there are other segments of society that are probably far more victimized," Muhlhausen said. "Burglars target people with homes; we're not concerned about that. What about crimes about people with homes? We're not collecting statistics on that as a hate crime."

"But we do have uniform statistics on that," Cardin said. "I take issue with you. We do have good information on burglaries in this country. We don't on attacks against the homeless. You say you don't object to having good information. You say you don't object to having it isolated into protected classes. I interpret from your comments that you want to be opposed to this bill - and it's your right to do that - but I don't see any rational support for it."

Like a smoke alarm

Cardin then turned to Brian Levin, director of the nonpartisan Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, where he teaches in the Department of Criminal Justice, and asked him to address one of the reasons for addressing homeless statistics - ending homelessness in this country. Cardin wanted to know if this data collection could ultimately help military veterans, victims of domestic violence, addicts and others get off the streets and prevent people from losing housing.

"With unemployment at over 9 percent, the housing situation, which has been well documented … it's important to recognize that many people who never thought they would be homeless have in fact become homeless," Levin said. "It would be nice to have some common sense prevail here.

"As Professor James Weinstein from Arizona said, Kristallnacht was more than the sum of assault and arson that took place on the evening of November 8, 2019. These are offenses are against a pluralistic democracy."

Kristallnacht, German for "Night of Broken Glass," was a Nazi pogrom in which 91 Jews were murdered, between 25,000 and 30,000 were placed in concentration camps, more than 1,000 synagogues were destroyed and tens of thousands of Jewish businesses and homes were looted. It is widely considered the prelude to the Holocaust.

"The criminal law consistently looks at the context, the target, the timing, the occasion and the motive of offenses. …The U.S. Supreme Court held … motive is something that the government can punish by statutes, not just with regard to sentencing," Levin said.

"For example, burning a church in a pluralistic society such as ours is different than burning a barn. And we have to look at the fact that many of the homicides that take place are due to things we would call routine, personal relationships - bar fights, intimate. These are horrible crimes, but the notion of random attacks by people who select others because the status characteristic is egregious.

"In the same way a smoke alarm sends out a message that something is wrong, I believe that we have enough data to indicate that there's an additional problem. … The homeless are regarded as a socially acceptable target for aggression."

In written testimony, Levin addressed the issue of devaluing homeless people. He quoted President Barack Obama at the signing of hate-crime legislation in 2009: "At root, this isn't just about our laws; this is about who we are as a people. This is about whether we value one another." And he went on to say explain how gathering data - an apparently clinical activity - is essential to the valuation of human life.

"One of the hallmarks of our civilized society is our national commitment to the transparent collection and analysis of official data that impact the public's health, safety and welfare. …  Advancements in computer-aided crime data collection … will significantly enhance our knowledge to combat a terrible evil scourge that is killing and maiming some of the most vulnerable souls in our society," Levin wrote.

Reviewing the arguments against adding the bill, Levin chose to focus significant attention on the question of "choosing to be homeless."

"Perhaps the least impressive argument relates to the mutability of homeless status," he wrote. "The argument states that homelessness, unlike race, is a changeable condition that most people would not want, so why offer to count it or protect on the basis of that condition? As a practical matter, mutability is a diversion from proper analysis of whether a group characteristic should be covered in hate crime laws, because many currently covered categories are in fact mutable.

"Hate-crime categories like religion, nationality, gender, age or disability are either mutable or potentially so. The fact that one's religion can be altered does not make it less worthy of statutory recognition, and for that reason it is covered in both federal law and by virtually every state statute. Furthermore, the fact that a particular status characteristic, like disability, is one that many would not choose has not precluded its inclusion in many statutes either."

'That's not America'

Cardin pointed out that Simone Manning-Moon eloquently explained how some people find the only way to manage life obstacles is to live on the street. Her brother, Norris Jay Gaynor, was a man with mental disabilities, who was beaten to death in Florida in 2006 for being homeless.

"Your brother, Norris Jay Gaynor … was proud that he was taking care of himself on the streets," Cardin said. "I'm impressed by the fact that he didn't want to take government benefits because he thought he could take care himself. He didn't ask much of this country."

"He didn't," Manning-Moon said. "If he did realize on some days that he needed help, his innate notion that he shouldn't rely on the government or anyone … took over and won out. It is ironic that his killers … actually had many of, if not more of, the problems my brother had in his younger years, but they somehow never carried the accompanying notion that they were to man-up and try to take care of themselves."

Cardin told Manning-Moon that is was reasonable for her brother to expect this country - which promotes and defends freedom and diversity - to address hate crimes.

"The local newspaper described one of the convicted killers of my brother and the attacker of two others that night as 'someone whose friends said routinely went out seeking homeless people to beat and attack.' If we think about what the value would be of having legislation would actually help law enforcement … track, understand, have on their radar this type of behavior - imagine what the possibilities if that tracking had happened earlier and Brian Hooks would have been identified earlier as someone who is prone to this type of behavior," Manning-Moon said.

Closing the hearing, Cardin thanked the panelists for their testimony and putting a face on the broad concepts being discussed. In what could have been rhetoric for supporting a foreign war and fighting terrorism, he summarized the argument for passage of the Hate Crimes Against the Homeless Statistics Act.

"The nation's first priority is to protect its citizens," he said. "When someone is brutally attacked or put in harm's way solely because they don't have a roof over their head - that's not America."

Originally published by StreetVibes, USA. ©

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