More than a year ago, House Bill H.R. 1136 was introduced and assigned to a congressional committee, where apparently it remains. If passed, one thing this bill will change is how state and federal governments define hate-crime violence. Victims who are obviously chosen for their economic status will be included in the Hate Crime Statistics Act. The National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) has just released a report (available as a 56-page PDF download) titled Vulnerable to Hate: A Survey of Hate Crimes and Violence Committed against the Homeless in 2013.
The cloud of unknowing
Unless they set up a Google alert for the keyword “homeless,” most Americans probably have only a hazy notion about the extent of violence against people experiencing homelessness. Susan Sarandon, the actor and longtime activist, said to a Congressional briefing session, “Even though I worked with the homeless, I wasn’t aware of the level of violence.”
An overview of the NCH report published in the Huffington Post brings it all together and ties it up in a bow. Titled “New Report: Homeless Torture Not Covered by Government Data,” the article was written by Brian Levin, director of California State University’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.
Since the government doesn’t keep track, we look to NCH data and learn that in the past 15 years there have been 1,400 documented hate crimes of violence against homeless people by attackers who were not homeless. Averaged out, that’s fewer than 100 such incidents per year. Or one every three or four days, nationwide. It seems like we are hearing about such atrocities much more frequently than that.
But taking an average does not tell the whole tale. The numbers fluctuate for many reasons. One thing for sure is that, according to the FBI, far more people are summarily executed by their fellow citizens for being homeless than because of religion, race, or sexual orientation. Levin writes:
National data over the most recent five-year period of 2008-12, where comparative figures are available, showed anti-homeless hate homicides at 139, compared to only 36 for all other hate crime homicides combined.
The victims tend to be on the older end of the age spectrum. It only makes sense. Of the known perpetrators of these brutal attacks, almost half of them are younger than 20. The young are efficient aggressors but often unsatisfactory victims. An agile youth can sleep in a tree. Unsheltered victims hampered by age and disability are less able to find good hiding places and certainly less able to defend themselves from unprovoked attacks. Levin says:
Over recent years the NCH data collection efforts have documented beatings, stabbings, blunt force trauma, setting victims on fire, drownings, shootings, sexual assault, maiming, stoning and spray painting…. The NCH representative sample of nonlethal attacks, considered a vast undercount, rose 30 percent last year, although it is unclear how much of that rise is attributable to enhanced reporting.
There is no way to know how many incidents go unreported. How many bodies are never found? How many serious assaults, and even murder attempts, go undocumented by people who want to steer clear of the authorities, even if it means suffering from untreated injuries? How many such assaults are perpetrated by the authorities themselves, and how many of them go unreported? An entire industry is in charge of crunching numbers and making educated guesses about this sort of thing. The bottom line is, any number is too high.
In the days of the Civil Rights struggle, when Freedom Riders were enrolling voters in the South and determined crowds were marching all over the country, cynics would say “You can’t legislate love.” And activists would answer, “Maybe not, but you can legislate law.”
Source: “Report: Homeless Torture Not Covered By Government Data,” HuffingtonPost.com, 06/27/14
Image by Ron Cogswell