Attacking a homeless person would become a hate crime, bringing increased penalties, under a bill filed in the Florida Legislature, a reaction to high-profile beatings of South Florida street dwellers.
A similar measure was filed last year but died without passing the Senate.
The proposal, which would mean longer sentences for those convicted of assaulting the homeless, was spurred by a series of attacks that gained widespread attention, including one beating near Fort Lauderdale that left 45-year-old Norris Gaynor dead and another shocking attack that was captured on video and broadcast worldwide.
The security videotape showed young men hitting Jacques Pierre with a baseball bat on the campus of Florida Atlantic University the same night they allegedly killed Gaynor. Another man was also beaten that night, allegedly by the same young men.
Another four teenagers are also facing charges of attempted murder for a September attack in a Fort Lauderdale park on another homeless man, William Teeters.
Rep. Priscilla Taylor, D-Riviera Beach, said some young people appear to be specifically targeting the homeless because of who they are—which makes it a hate crime.
“Until that stops and people really get the message that it’s not OK to do this, we need additional penalties,” Taylor said Friday about the bill she filed late last month.
Similar incidents have not been reported in Alachua County, but homeless advocates say the bill would be welcome.
“It is a hate crime,” said Arupa Freeman, coordinator of the HOME Van which provides meals to homeless residents. “Homeless people are victims of discrimination based on economic status. They’re the poor, which is not so much of a minority as it used to be but its a hated minority.”
“In the history books of the future, when they’re talking about mistreatment and injustice, the treatment of the homeless people will be right up there with the diaspora of the Native Americans and Jim Crow,” Freeman said.
The Legislature meets for two months in March and April, but legislation is considered in committee meetings all winter.
The bill could get a boost if Gov.-elect Charlie Crist supports it, which appears likely.
“I’d be open to that,” Crist said this week when asked if he’d support making attacks against the homeless a hate crime.
Under the measure, a person convicted of aggravated assault or aggravated battery on a homeless person must be sentenced to a minimum of three years in prison and could get a fine up to $10,000.
Advocates for the homeless back the idea of tougher penalties—saying that it may serve as a deterrent because many of the beatings appear to be premeditated attacks, where people go looking for the homeless because they are defenseless and on the fringes of society.
Enhanced hate crime penalties “have certainly been a deterrent when it comes to the elderly and we think it’s been a deterrent when it comes to race,” said Ron Book, chairman of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust. “There probably isn’t a more vulnerable population than the people living out on the street.”
Book said there was a need for statewide legislation because local laws can’t require long enough jail sentences and partly because it appears to be a growing problem—although no one is certain about the number of attacks on the homeless because many go unreported.
“I’d like to tell you we were limited to two cases,” Book said noting the two high-profile arrests in Broward County. “Unfortunately there have been multiple cases.”
NCH [National Coalition for the Homeless] Fact Sheet # 21
History of Violence
Over the past seven years, advocates and homeless shelter workers from around the country have received news reports of men, women and even children being harassed, kicked, set on fire, beaten to death, and even decapitated. From 1999 through 2005, there have been 472 acts of violence by housed people, resulting in 169 murders of homeless people and 303 victims of non-lethal violence in 165 cities from 42 states and Puerto Rico.
In response to this barrage of information, the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH), along with its Civil Rights Work Group, a nationwide network of civil rights and homeless advocates, began compiling documentation of this epidemic. NCH has taken articles and news reports and compiled them into an annual report. The continual size of reports of hate crimes and violence against people experiencing homelessness has led NCH to publish its seventh annual consecutive report, “Hate, Violence, and Death on Main Street USA: A Report on Hate Crimes and Violence Against People Experiencing Homelessness in 2005.” This annual report also includes a seven-year analysis of this widespread epidemic. These reports are available on the NCH website at:www.nationalhomeless.org
What is a Hate Crime?
The term “hate crime” generally conjures up images of cross burnings and lynchings, swastikas on Jewish synagogues, and horrific murders of gays and lesbians. In 1968, the U.S. Congress defined a hate crime as a crime in which the defendant intentionally selects a victim, or in the case of a property crime, the property that is the object of the crime, because of their race, color or national origin (Title 18 U.S.C Section 245). The first federal law to combat hate crimes, 18 USC Section 245, passed in 1968; it mandated that the government must prove both that the crime occurred because of a victim’s membership in a designated group and because the victim was engaged in certain specified federally-protected activities—such as serving on a jury, voting, or attending public school.
Federal bias crime laws enacted subsequently have provided additional coverage. The
Hate Crimes Statistics Act of 1990 (HCSA) authorizes the Justice Department to collect data from law enforcement agencies about crimes that “manifest evidence of prejudice based upon race, religion, -sexual orientation, or ethnicity.”
The Hate Crimes Sentencing
Enhancement Act, enacted as a section of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, defines hate crimes as “a crime in which the defendant intentionally selects a victim, or in the case of a property crime, the property that is the object of the crime, because of the actual or perceived race, color, national origin, ethnicity, gender, disability, or sexual orientation of any person.” This measure only applies to attacks and vandalism that occur in national parks and on federal property.
Who Commits Hate Crimes and Violence Against People who are Homeless?
Most hate crimes/violent acts are committed not by organized hate groups, but by individual citizens who harbor a strong resentment against a certain group of people. Some are “mission offenders,” who believe they are on a mission to cleanse the world of a particular evil. Others are “scapegoat offenders,” who violently act out their resentment toward the perceived growing economic power of a particular racial or ethnic group. Still others are “thrill seekers,” those who take advantage of a vulnerable and disadvantaged group in order to satisfy their own pleasures. Thrill seekers, primarily in their teens, are the most common perpetrators of violence against people who are homeless.
[This report may also be read as a pdf file