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Legislating Hate

Written by NCH Staff on . Posted in Awareness, Civil Rights, Hate Crimes, Violence Against the Homeless

Hate exists in American society.  Sadly, some individuals act upon hateful urges and cause harm to innocent human beings; harm ranging from minor assault to brutal death.  In an effort to curb hateful violence, Congress and many State governments have enacted statutes that increase punishment for those acts targeted at individuals because of such individual’s status.  The intent of such laws, and the punishments attached, are to send a message to society that our criminal justice system does not tolerate hate.

Unfortunately, the federal government and most States do not categorize homelessness as a protected status from hate.  This means that in most places in America a “homeless hater,” unprovoked, could attack a homeless person sleeping on a bench, and when being tried for the crime, the hater would be punished for the action, but not for the motive of action.  Not punishing a person’s reason for acting sends the message that the act is wrong, but the motive behind the act is acceptable.

On August 9, 1999, in Seattle, Washington, three young men beat and stabbed David Ballenger, 46, to death.  David had no valuable possessions to steal.  David was not involved in drugs, or the associated violence. And David did not verbally or physically entice his attackers. David was simply murdered because he was homeless. In fact, a Seattle newspaper quoted one of the perpetrators boasting that there was “one less bum on the face of the earth.”

The attack began as a verbal barrage, the young men criticizing David for not being able to make a living.  When David walked away, his attackers followed and began beating him.  Resisting, David escaped, but the young men found him, elevated the violence, and stabbed the helpless David Ballenger to death.  This senseless murder is not the only instance of inhumanity toward the homeless in Washington.  In fact, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, between 1999 and 2009 there were 21 reported incidents of violence directed at homeless individuals, 12 of which resulting in death.

Over a decade after David Ballenger’s brutal murder, on January 10, 2011, Washington State Senator Scott White (D-Seattle) introduced legislation in response to the violence toward the homeless.  White’s legislation seeks to include offenses that were intentionally committed because the defendant perceived the victim to be homeless to the criteria for aggravating circumstances under which an exceptional sentence above the standard range may be imposed.  On March 2, 2011 the Senate passed White’s bill with a vote of 49 – 0. The bill was then sent to the House, and the following month the legislation was passed 92 – 1 (Republican Jason Overstreet was the sole dissenter; Republican members Terry Nealey, Kevin Parker, Jay Rodne, and Charles Ross, abstained from the vote) Finally on April 15, 2011, almost 12 years after the brutal murder of David Ballenger, Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire signed White’s bill into law, making offenses committed because a victim was homeless an aggravating circumstance.

But what does this really mean once we climb past the legal jargon?

Practically, the passage of Washington S.B. 5011 (White’s bill) means that if an offense against a person was intentionally committed because that person was perceived to be homeless (the aggravating circumstance), courts will have the option to impose tougher penalties (the exceptional sentence).  However, before a Judge can make a decision regarding the exceptional sentence, the jury must find beyond a reasonable doubt that the aggravating circumstance exists.  S.B. 5011 did not create the concept of increased punishment for certain acts.  Rather, it added homelessness to an already lengthy list of other aggravating circumstances existing in Washington State criminal law.  This statute does not create homelessness as a protected category from hate, but it is a step in the right direction.

by Shane M. Poole

California Bill Would Help Protect Homeless People from Hate Crimes

Written by NCH Staff on . Posted in Civil Rights, Hate Crimes, Policy Advocacy

The National Coalition for the Homeless firmly believes in protecting homeless people against hate crimes committed by housed persons simply because of the victim’s real or perceived homelessness. Through legislation, the state of California has been working to pass important legislation in order to advance this effort. Assembly Bill 312, introduced by State Representative Bonnie Lowenthal (D-54), is being considered by the State Legislature, and just two days ago it passed the Senate Judiciary Committee. The bill would specify that crimes against the homeless rendered because of the person’s real or perceived homeless status would be considered a crime discriminatory in nature so victims would have the ability to sue in civil court for increased reparations. In short, the bill would add homelessness as a characteristic to the Ralph Civil Rights Act, which now protects from hate crimes those targeted for factors such as race, sexual orientation, and political affiliation, but not housing situation.

History

AB 2706, introduced last year by Bonnie Lowenthal, was a very similar law, which last year the California Assembly and Senate passed, but Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed it. He stated, “Poverty unlike race, gender, national origin and disability, is not a suspect classification” (see Senate Judiciary Committee bill analysis below). However, under California law, political affiliation was already protected on the same level as race, religion… in the Ralph Civil Rights Act. Political affiliation, like homelessness, tends not to be an inherent characteristic like race or religion, so homelessness should be a protected status as well.

One of the reasons the homeless should have further protection is because of the demonstrated necessity to it. Prior to AB 2706, California in 2001 passed SR 18 which required an examination of hate crimes against the homeless. The results of it, along with our report of “Hate Crimes Against the Homeless,” pointed to many ruthless hate crimes against the homeless. Because of this, along with Democratic Governor Brown in power, it seems more hopeful for the bill to be ratified this year.

Process

In order for the bill to go into effect, it must pass through all of the various levels in the California State Assembly and Senate. The bill has already passed through the Assembly, and two days ago the bill passed, by a 3-2 vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee. The committee referred the bill back to the Senate Appropriations Committee, where it now awaits passage. If this happens, the bill must then pass the Senate floor and Assembly floor in order to go to Governor Brown. Last year, AB 2706 passed the Senate with a 21-13 vote and a 51-26 vote in the Assembly.

Effect

The bill, if passed, would not only help to increase reparations for homeless people who are attacked, but it would also serve as a deterrent to those housed individuals committing the crimes. Though some debate exists over whether violence against the homeless should be put on the same plane as violence against homosexuals or people of a certain race, we believe that crimes against the homeless, committed because they are homeless, deserve to be treated more seriously than crimes without aggravating circumstances.

Take Action

Read the bill and follow its status.

Read the Senate Judiciary Committee bill analysis from June 7, 2011.

Contact members of the Senate Appropriations Committee about the bill.

Laura Epstein, Staff

Orlando’s Food-Sharing Ordinance

Written by NCH Staff on . Posted in Advocacy, Awareness, Civil Rights, Food Sharing

Federal Appeals Court Ends Food Fight in Orlando in First Vagabonds Church of God v. City of Orlando

On April 12, 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit upheld the City of Orlando’s ordinance limiting public food-sharing in parks to twice-yearly.

Food-Sharing in Orlando

In 2005, Food Not Bombs, a group that shares food with low income and homeless residents, recognized the need for food-sharing in the City of Orlando. The organization began to offer a weekly meal at Lake Eola Park in Downtown Orlando.

Approximately 50-120 people attended the food-sharing each week.  In 2008, they increased the food-sharings to twice weekly. The First Vagabonds Church of God began providing weekly meals at the park as well. People who lived in the neighborhoods surrounding the park complained to officials that these food-sharings were making the park less accessible to others.

The Ordinance, the Lawsuit and the Appeal

In 2006, the City Council, encouraged by the complaints of some neighbors, passed an ordinance that restricted public food-sharing. The ordinance required that organizations must obtain a permit to food-share with more than 25 people in a park. Only two permits would be available per park per year. This ordinance would require organizations like Food Not Bombs and First Vagabonds Church of God to obtain permits for multiple parks in order to continue with their food-sharings, which would require the groups to constantly move the weekly event.

In October of 2008, Food Not Bombs, First Vagabonds Church of God, and other individuals, filed a lawsuit against the City of Orlando on behalf of the food-sharing organizations and individuals. The lawsuit argued that the city’s ordinance violated several First and Fourteenth Amendment rights of the food-sharing organizations, as well as violating the Florida Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The federal district court found the law to be unconstitutional as an infringement on the parties’ rights to free speech and the free exercise of religion, but the city appealed the decision to the Eleventh Circuit.

In April of 2011, the Court of Appeals ruled in a unanimous decision to uphold the city limit of twice-yearly food-sharings in public parks. The court stated that the ordinance is not unconstitutionally restricting any party’s First Amendment rights, finding the ordinance to be “a reasonable time, place, or manner restriction” that does not impose any invalid regulation on expressive conduct. The decision relied upon the 1984 decision Clark v. Community For Creative Non-Violence , in which the Supreme Court upheld the U.S. Park Service’s ability to restrict protestors from sleeping in tents in Lafayette Park and the National Mall in Washington, DC.

The bulk of the legal assistance to the food-sharing groups and individuals was provided by Legal Advocacy at Work, a grassroots, non-profit law firm in Orlando.  The American Civil Liberties Union also assisted with the litigation.

Looking Forward

After the decision, food-sharing groups can only serve meals in the specified parks twice a year. Parties caught without a permit could be convicted of violating the city ordinance. Individuals or groups could be fined $500 or spend two months in jail if they continued to distribute weekly meals. In order to provide more than two meals a year, organizations will have to visit other parks and repeatedly change location. Consequently, the population served by the food-sharing will likely find it more difficult to ascertain the location of the next food-sharing event, which may reduce the number of people who can benefit from such programs. Food Not Bombs and the other parties are currently exploring possible next steps, including the possibility of pursuing review at the U.S. Supreme Court.

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