On July 10, NCH hosted a briefing at the capital to discuss acts of violence against the homeless and advocate for hate crimes legislation. The importance of this issue was marked by the attendance of the four co-chairs of the Congressional Caucus on Homelessness: Representative Judy Biggert (R-IL-13th), Representative Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL-23rd), Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX-30th), and Representative Geoff Davis (R-KY-4th).
All four congressional members spoke passionately about the remarkable number of violent acts against the homeless that have been recorded, as well as the overwhelming lack of data currently available. Representative Johnson also discussed her bill, HR 3528, which would include “homeless status” in current federal Anti-Hate Crimes legislation and further require the collection of data on hate crimes committed against the homeless.
Afterwards, NCH played an equally horrifying and crucial video that displayed images of homeless individuals being beaten up. It was difficult to watch as some of the most vulnerable members of our society were targeted and battered for circumstances outside of their control. This video reinforced how vital hate crimes legislation is to protect the homeless.
The briefing also featured three speakers who testified about their different experiences with violence against the homeless. The first to speak was Captain Wierzbicki of the Broward County (Florida) Sheriff’s Department who was instrumental in the passage of hate crimes legislation against the homeless in Florida in 2010. He stressed the need for law enforcement participation in the passage of such legislation because of their role in reporting hate crimes and working with homeless individuals.
The next speaker was David Pirtle who testified as to his experience living on the streets of New York and Washington, DC due to mental illness. Mr. Pirtle not only witnessed others being brutally beaten, but suffered abuse repeatedly himself. His compelling story reinforced that people living on the streets are deserving of protection, particularly because of added vulnerability to the elements, illness, and hunger.
Lastly, Maria Foscarinis, current director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP) and former NCH staff, testified as to the efforts by NLCHP to combat homelessness. She drew attention to criminalization efforts across the country to penalize people for “activities of life” performed in public spaces. She stated that access to affordable housing is a human right and that governments should seek to deal with the root causes of homelessness. For example, permanent supportive housing has proven to be not only widely successful, but a financially responsible solution.
This event demonstrated the shared recognition amongst government officials, advocates, law enforcement, the homeless, and concerned citizens that hate crimes legislation should be expedited to protect this segment of the population. Such legislation will not only punish and deter individuals from committing bias-related crimes, but it will make a statement to the community that the homeless are deserving of such protection.
By Allison Dinmore