12/21/2012 12:33 pm ET Updated Jan 08, 2013

Anti-Homeless Hate Crimes Detailed In New Report

In Seattle last September, a young man shot four homeless people, killing one. A few months earlier, In Kittanning, Penn., authorities reported that two young men beat a homeless man with a tire iron "just for fun."

A new report by an organization that studies anti-homeless hate crimes shows that at least 32 homeless people in the United States died as a result of violent attacks in 2011, as compared with 24 the year before. The report also tallied 73 non-lethal attacks against the homeless, a drop from the previous year's count of 89.

The National Coalition for the Homeless has been tracking anti-homeless hate crimes since 1999, when it recorded a total of 61 attacks. Since then, the numbers have fluctuated, but in the past six years, the count never dipped below 100. And this year, as in years past, the number of lethal anti-homeless hate crimes counted by the group exceeds the government's tally of deadly hate crimes in all other categories. The FBI does not track anti-homeless attacks, since it does not categorize the homeless as a protected group.

Neil Donovan, the executive director of the group, attributed the increase in lethal attacks in part to the growing prevalence of laws aimed at punishing homeless people for minor infractions like sleeping on the street, panhandling, and drinking in public.

"I think there's been an evolution -- or a devolution -– of compassion for the homeless to compassion fatigue, and I think it's almost generally accepted now that the fatigue has translated into a criminalization of homelessness," he said. "We're looking at a campaign of dehumanization."

The fact that nearly all of the attacks were carried out by teenagers and young men came as little surprise to Donovan. In recent years, his group has worked to draw attention to the phenomenon of online video games and videos that "degrade and stigmatize homeless persons by perpetuating the stereotype that homeless people are 'bums' and that they have no other worth than to provide the rest of society entertainment by causing themselves and others bodily harm," Donovan said.

The first of these videos was released about a decade ago under the name "BumFights," and the popularity of the genre continues to grow. In 2011, about 15,900 YouTube videos were tagged with search phrase “bum fight,” a significant increase compared to the previous year. The growing YouTube sensation also includes videos of homeless women fighting, tagged as “Bag Lady Fights.”

Many of the kids who commit acts of violence against homeless people have talked about growing up with these videos and games, Donovan said. "Kids, when their minds aren't developed, can't separate reality from fiction," he added.

David Pirtle, a formerly homeless man who was attacked while sleeping on a New York City street in 2004, said he wasn't surprised by the reported rise in deadly anti-homeless hate crimes either. Pirtle now works as an advocate and speaker with the National Coalition for the Homeless, and earlier this year, he told a version of his story at a congressional gathering organized by the group.

In recent years, perhaps thanks in part to the advocacy of NCH and others, several states have moved to grant protected status to their homeless populations, making it possible for prosecutors to charge those who attack the homeless with hate crimes.
"I think it's encouraging, but obviously we have a long way to go toward educating young people about this horrible trend," Pirtle said. "It really won't end until it's no longer cool to go out and beat up homeless people."

One of the first states to include the homeless among the groups protected by its hate-crime legislation was Florida, where the 2006 killing of Norris Gaynor, a 45-year-old homeless man in Broward County, Fla., became a media sensation. The Broward County Sheriff's Office campaigned to get the state legislature to do something about such crimes, and in 2010, then-Gov. Charlie Crist signed a bill making Florida the largest state to protect the homeless under its hate-crime statute.

Broward police Capt. Rick Wierzbicki became an unlikely champion of these laws, and in a 2010 Senate hearing on the issue emphasized the importance of the annual NCH report, calling it critical "to law enforcement agencies for developing plans of action, deploying resources, and measuring our progress.”

Wierzbicki, Donovan and other advocates have been pushing the federal government to compile its own data on anti-homeless hate crimes, and they feel hopeful about their prospects: In 2009, the Obama administration expanded the country's hate-crime legislation to protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

"The National Coalition for the Homeless has never had the resources nor the authority to adequately collect and report on hate crimes against the homeless," said Donovan. But until the government takes on that task, he added, his group will continue "meeting this challenge and filling an informational void."