By Alex Alper.
Last month, a 58-year-old black man named Ben Lully was shot and killed on Lincoln Terrace in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. His address, according to the NYPD, was 197 Bowery Street, a Manhattan homeless shelter.
Violence against the homeless is at a 10-year high, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. Last year, 43 homeless people were murdered by housed individuals across the country, an almost 50 percent increase over the previous year.
“This economic downturn made a lot of people who are one or two paychecks away from homelessness really freak out,” said Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. He says that homeless attackers, when questioned, say, “my dad was saying that these guys are all freakin’ bums. He’s been trying to get a job for two years and he doesn’t beg for money on the street.”
Senate subcommittee hearings began last month for The Hate Crimes Against the Homeless Statistics Act, which would require the FBI to collect data on hate crimes against the homeless. Maryland democratic senator Ben Cardin proposed the bill last year because, according to his spokeswoman, “there is no uniform data on how many attacks are occurring across the country. The National Coalition for the Homeless has done the best it can in collecting the data they have access to, but they are a non-profit.” Without more information, the Senator said, it is difficult to know how to address this issue.
Others—like David Mulhausen, a senior researcher at the Heritage Foundation who testified against the bill – think the protection is a waste of federal time and money.
“Crimes against the homeless have not risen to a point that requires data collection by the federal government,” said Mulhausen. “43 homicides in 2009 is .28 percent of all homicides that year.” There were 15,000 murders total.
“That’s kind of like saying, ‘well, why should we pay attention to the fact that a soldier in Afghanistan walked up to this woman and shot her head?’” said Donovan, who added that any hate motivated murder is lamentable and should be tracked. “If you take all of the bias motivated crimes and all of the bias motivated murders in this country together, they do not equal the number of bias motivated crimes against homeless people.”
In 2008, the FBI recorded seven hate motivated murders, a year in which the National Coalition for the Homeless recorded 27 homeless murders. The organization collects data mostly through newspaper clippings and counts all crimes against the homeless perpetrated by housed people as hate crimes.
In one well-publicized non-fatal attack last year, a homeless man in Cincinnati, Ohio was reportedly attacked by four teenage boys, drenched in lighter fluid and set on fire. A homeless woman confined to a wheelchair was allegedly raped in Seattle, Washington last year by a man who offered her a place to sleep. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, the largest number of violent acts occurred in Florida and California against middle age homeless men. Perpetrators were typically young white men.
Cardin said the spate of violence against the homeless may be due to media that portray the homeless as violent. A 2009 report by the National Coalition for the Homeless points to Bumfights, a series of four Youtube videos that feature a violent homeless man who gets drunk and fights with other homeless men. In Bumrise, a web-based game that came out this year, the player is a homeless man in New York who advances by beating other homeless men and pick-pocketing. The game has been incorporated onto Facebook as Streetfighters and has been “liked” by over 100,000 users.
The Hate Crimes Statistics Act, passed in 1990, requires the FBI to collect data on crimes motivated by the victim’s race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity or national origin. The Act was amended in 1994 to include mentally and physically disabled.
Laws in Maine, Maryland, Florida, and Washington D.C. make crimes against homeless people hate crimes.
A similar bill proposed by New York State assemblyman Rory Lanceman (D-Queens) last year was sent twice to the Committee on Codes and has not been passed.
There are roughly 61,000 homeless people in New York State on a given night, making its homeless population the sixth largest in the nation, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.
There was only one homeless murder in New York last year, according to the National Coalition.
“If every crime is a hate crime it becomes a meaningless category,” said Mulhausen. “What about crimes against pregnant women and military veterans?” Mulhausen opposes hate crime on the grounds that it judges criminals based on intent.
Mulhausen said that the percentage of homeless people who are murdered is about 6.7 murders per 100,000 homeless people, only slightly higher than the national rate of 5 homicides per 100,000.
In 2009, there were roughly 643,000 homeless people in the U.S. on a given night.
“Right now, we don’t have an accurate picture of what is going on in the streets,” said Cardin’s spokeswoman, when asked if low numbers and low per capita incidence justify federal scrutiny. “Senator Cardin is trying to find out if this problem is as pervasive as it seems according to the reports we do have.”
Ben Lully’s murder was not listed in any newspapers that we have seen.
There were nearly 37,000 homeless people at homeless shelters in August in New York City, up 13,000 from the same month in 2000.
Mulhausen is not convinced that the incidence of homeless murder is increasing. “The data collection process is so informal and so unprofessional it may just be due to reporting mistakes,” he said. He said that the Coalition’s report theorized that the reason for the high number of assaults in Florida and California was due to warmer climates. This created more opportunity for contact between the homeless and the housed, leading to more violence. In actuality, the two states simply had higher homeless populations, and mid-level rates of violence, he said. Alaska has the highest per capita rate of violence against the homeless, according to Mulhausen.
But when asked whether the Coalition’s faulty data collection meant that the federal government should step in, Mulhausen responded, “then we should collect data on everything; every drummed up social problem needs data collection. Where do we draw the line?”
Mulhausen said that congressmen support the bill for image reasons. “It’s an issue that hits high on the compassion scale. It sends the message to people that we care: ‘How dare anybody be against this?’”
“All those alternative lifestyle people, homosexuals, lesbians, if you do something to them, it’s a hate crime,” said Kenneth Garland, a 50-year-old homeless New Yorker. Security Guards in Hollywood maced him in June 2006 when he refused to get off a bus stop, permanently damaging his eyes. “I think the homeless people should get the same type of protection,” added Garland.. “It’s only fair.”