The streets have become an increasingly dangerous place to be homeless.
While the number of homeless people in the U.S. dropped for the third straight year in 2012, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s latest estimates, advocates can’t quite celebrate yet.
Homeless people experienced a 23 percent surge in targeted attacks last year as compared to the number of assaults in 2012, according to preliminary figures released by the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH).
NCH, the only national organization to track crimes against the homeless, is slated to publish its 15th annual report on the topic in April, Michael Stoops, director of community organizing, told The Huffington Post.
In 2013, there were a total of 108 reported attacks against the homeless, according to preliminary figures. Nineteen of those assaults resulted in death, Stoops said. The year before, there were 88 reported attacks, 18 of which resulted in death.
To collect its data, the group focuses on published news reports, information provided by homeless advocates and service providers and accounts from homeless people, the group said in its last report.
While the NCH report is comprehensive, it’s by no means all-encompassing considering that many attacks against the homeless go unreported.
Stoops believes a number of factors -- including copycat crimes and the demonization of homeless people -- have attributed to the jump in number of attacks.
Assailants can now view brutal attacks that are featured on YouTube and Facebook, and get "inspired" to carry out similar crimes, Stoops said.
In 2011, for example, two young men brutally attacked a homeless man in New Jersey, leaving him with a bloody nose and other injuries. The attackers then posted footage of their crime to YouTube, which has since been taken down, according to CNN.
One of the attackers, Taylor Giresi, was sentenced to three years in state prison last December, according to NJ.com. The other individual, whose name was not released, served more than 60 days in a state youth detention facility and later received a one-year suspended sentence and was placed on probation for a year.
The popularization of the "knockout game" has also affected homeless people. The "game" tasks participants to try and knockout a stranger with just one punch.
Three New Jersey teens chose a homeless man with disabilities to be the target of their game last September, and are now facing murder charges, NJ.com reported.
Another issue at hand is the negative stigma cities are setting against homeless people.
In an effort to eliminate homelessness, cities across the country have been implementing feeding and panhandling bans -- inviting residents to see homeless people as criminals that deserve to be beaten, Stoops said.
"Cities continue to crack down on the homeless population by enforcing laws and creating a hostile attitude toward the homeless population," Stoops said.
The group found a direct correlation between the number of hate crimes exacted against homeless people and the criminalization of homelessness in those particular places.
In fact, four of the 10 "meanest" cities were located in Florida and California, which are both notorious for their anti-homeless laws, according to the "Homes Not Handcuffs" report released by the National Coalition for the Homeless.
In a particularly gruesome attack in Los Angeles last December, Dennis Petillo, 24, poured a flammable liquid over a homeless woman sleeping on a bench and then set her on fire. Police said Petillo had no motive and he was charged with attempted murder, according to CBS News.
But some advocates refuse to sit by and let harsh laws dictate how the homeless people in their cities will be treated.
In February, a group of protesters gathered at Portland City Hall waving pitchforks and torches, and created a cemetery scene to "shame the mayor into action," organizer Jessie Sponberg told The Oregonian.
The protest came on the heels on a number of proposed pieces of legislation. Portland may revive a bill that would allow police to rouse homeless people sitting on sidewalks, The Oregonian reported at the end of last year. And, in July, Mayor Charlie Hales launched an effort to clear out homeless campsites, according to the Portland Mercury.
To curb attacks against the homeless, NCH has proposed that an assault against a homeless person should be considered a hate crime. It also wants the Department of Justice to issue guidelines for law enforcement agencies on how to investigate and prosecute bias-motivated crimes against homeless people
Back in 2010, Florida was one of the first states to include the homeless among the groups protected by its hate-crime legislation, a move the Coalition hopes other states will soon follow.
"[These laws are] important to make statements that homeless people are not second-class citizens," Tulin Ozdeger, civil rights director for the National Law Center on Homeless & Poverty, told the Associated Press in 2010, "and that violence against them, brutal violence against them, will not be tolerated."