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On Tuesday, July 10th Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson sponsored a briefing on violence against homeless people. The briefing was cosponsored by the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP). The briefing highlighted two pieces of legislation introduced by Representative Johnson this past May, the Hate Crimes against the Homeless Enforcement and Statistics Acts (H.R. 2217 and 2216 respectively). The bills will add homeless persons as a protected class under federal hate crimes statutes, allowing stricter penalties and mandating the U.S. Department of Justice to monitor attacks.

Remarks of Robert Nasdor, Legal Director
National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty

Testimony of Jessica Schuler
Policy Analyst for the National Coalition for the Homeless

Statement of Prof. Brian Levin
Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism, California State University-San Bernardino

Testimony of Jessica Schuler
Policy Analyst for the National Coalition for the Homeless

“His breathing was labored as he continued groaning, blood spurting from his ears, nose, mouth and head… One of them found a 6-foot log and two of them lifted it across Mikey’s chest. Two by two, the four boys took turns jumping up and down on the log”

Such are the words of Barbara Roberts Burns, sister to Michael Roberts, a homeless man killed on May 25th, 2005, as she describes the assault on her brother. The vicious beating crushed every bone in Michael’s arms, legs and chest, ultimately taking his life. 

The National Coalition for the Homeless has worked to both end and prevent homelessness for over twenty-five years. In our efforts NCH has also toiled to ensure the protection of all homeless persons’ civil rights. In response to the growing problem of violence directed at homeless persons, in 1999 NCH began to monitor hate crimes and violence targeted against the homeless.

It has now been eight years since NCH first released our report, and hate crimes against the homeless have continued to grow in both number and severity. We have witnessed 10-year old children senselessly beat a homeless man close to death. We have seen teenagers videotape gruesome attacks, documenting their actions for later enjoyment. We have seen men and women murdered simply because they don’t have a home.

We have come to view people experiencing homelessness as second class citizens, persons whom it has become acceptable to hate and intimidate. Despite efforts, these attitudes of impudence facing our homeless population have continued to escalate. In the 8 years since NCH began our publication, we have reported 614 acts of violence, including 189 deaths. Attacks have not been limited to either small towns or big cities, but are endemic in homeless populations throughout the States.  The attacks were reported in over 200 cities country wide, occurring in over 44 states and Puerto Rico.

The breadth of the crimes speaks to its epidemic proportions. In 2006 the number of attacks augmented by a staggering 65 percent, tallying 142 reported acts of violence in a twelve month period. The crimes included 20 murders, over 100 beatings, 6 cases of victims being set on fire and 5 rapes. The attacks were recorded in 62 cities over 26 states, infiltrating every region of the country.     

Violence against the homeless does not favor any one race or religion. Victims of nearly every age, creed, race and ethnicity have been documented. The youngest victim reported was merely 4 months old, the oldest 74. The only unifying thread remains the ignorance and hate which motivated these attacks.

While the victims have reached every segment of the homeless population, the vast majority of these attacks are being committed by male teenagers. 62 % of attackers in 2006 were between the age of 13 and 19. Nearly 85% were age 25 or under. The evidence shows teenagers are motivated by their quest for a cheap thrill. Yet this motivation shows an underlying repeated and debasing attitude toward homeless persons which has sent a message loud and clear. Homeless people have become a population it’s not only okay to hate but okay to attack.  

Since we began our publication, NCH has worked tirelessly not only to educate the public to the crisis facing the homeless but to also include homeless persons in both federal and state hate crimes statutes. Now with the help of Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson and the introduction of the Hate Crimes against the Homeless Statistics and Enforcement Acts we are one step closer to the realization of our goal. We encourage your offices to become cosponsors of both bills and help us as we work to end hate crimes against homeless people.   

The National Coalition for the Homeless expresses our sincere thanks to Representative Johnson and her staff for their continued dedication to ending violence against homeless people. The introduction of H.R. 2216 and H.R. 2217 has been a landmark in our battle to stop hate crimes against people experiencing homelessness.  

Remarks of Robert Nasdor, Legal Director
National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty
Congressional Briefing on HR 2216 & 2217
July 10, 2007

The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP) would like to thank Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson for her leadership in helping to fight the growing trend of hate crimes against homeless people.  The Hate Crimes Against the Homeless Enforcement Act and the Hate Crimes Against the Homeless Statistics Act would both serve an important role in reducing violent hate crimes against homeless individuals in this country.

The mission of NLCHP is to prevent and end homelessness by serving as the legal arm of the nationwide movement to end homelessness. To achieve its mission, the organization pursues three main strategies: impact litigation, policy advocacy, and public education.  As part of its Civil Rights Project, NLCHP has been working closely with the National Coalition for the Homeless to combat the growing trend of hate crimes against homeless people.

Unfortunately, hate crimes and violence against homeless people in the United States has become an epidemic, with the number of such crimes on the rise.  Over the past several years, we have seen brutal and very disturbing attacks against homeless persons.  For example, last year a homeless man sleeping in a park in Boston was first beaten, then dowsed with flammable liquid and set on fire by two men.  In Ft. Lauderdale, a group of young men beat several homeless men in three separate locations on one night with sticks and baseball bats, killing one of the men.  These are only two of the many attacks against homeless people in the past decade.

Many cities and communities around the country do not have adequate affordable housing or shelter space to meet the need, forcing many homeless people to live outside.  In 2006, 68 percent of the 23 cities surveyed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors reported an increase in requests for emergency shelter, with the average increase being 9 percent.  Even while the requests for emergency shelter have increased, cities do not have adequate shelter space to meet the need.  According to the Mayors’ Survey, an average of 23 percent of overall emergency shelter requests went unmet, with 29 percent of shelter requests by homeless families unmet.

Homeless persons living outside are uniquely vulnerable to hate crimes because they are easily targeted. 

We need to add homeless persons to federal hate crimes legislation to send a clear message that hate crimes against homeless people will not be tolerated.  The bills introduced by Congresswoman Johnson are a very strong step toward protecting homeless persons and preventing future attacks.  The evidence is clear that homeless persons are suffering from the same types of hateful attacks that other protected groups in federal hate crimes statutes have experienced.  Homeless persons deserve the same protections.

When we think about hate crimes, what immediately comes to mind are images of lynchings and swastikas. While hate crimes such as these target groups with what are often referred to as immutable characteristics such as race and religion, what makes these despicable acts all the more reprehensible is that the perpetrators dehumanize their victims and act with impunity.  For homeless people today in many cities, they face laws that criminalize eating, sitting, and sleeping and their meager belongings are frequently confiscated and discarded by the police. These laws targeting homeless people are intended to ban them from public spaces and purge them from the cities where they are living. And along with the rise in laws criminalizing the very status of those who live on the streets, we see dramatic increases in violence targeting them. There are even videos glamorizing a practice referred to as “bum hunting” where homeless people are filmed while being attacked. These videos have inspired some of those who have perpetrated similar attacks.

When the government passes laws that discriminate against a powerless group, it gives a green light to those who would engage in acts of violence. It was not that long ago when the Black Codes and Jim Crow laws made it impossible for African-Americans to vote or to migrate to a particular state. What followed this state sanctioned targeting was the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and the widespread practice of lynching.

Hate crimes target those who cannot defend themselves and are perpetrated by those who believe they can get away with it because their victims aren’t really people. We need hate crimes laws, and we need them to be amended to include homeless people, because the violence will not end until we make clear that it is not culturally acceptable to light someone on fire or beat someone to death simply because no one cares. Homeless people need these protections because we need to make clear that we do care and that those who engage in such crimes will be held accountable.
Protecting homeless people from hate crimes is more than a moral imperative.  Hate crimes against homeless individuals violate the most basic human rights, from the right to life and security of person, to the right to be free from torture and cruel treatment.  Government cannot remain passive while a group of its citizens are violently targeted.
Some states have already recognized the need for legislative action on this issue.

The California Legislature passed a law in 2004 that requires the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards to develop a telecourse which includes training on hate crimes against homeless persons for law enforcement agencies throughout the state.  The training aims to provide an understanding of hate crimes against homeless persons, as well as ways to prevent and handle such crimes.  The California legislature will also consider next year another bill that would add homeless persons as a protected class to its hate crimes statute.

The Maine Legislature passed a law in 2006 to include a crime victim’s homelessness as a factor when a court is considering sentencing.  The law also requires the Maine Criminal Justice Academy to include in law enforcement trainings ways to reduce barriers in reporting crimes against homeless people.  Finally, the law directs the Commissioner of Public Safety and the Attorney General to review the relationship between law enforcement agencies and homeless people and ways to improve that relationship.

NLCHP believes that our government must act to stop this disturbing epidemic of hate crimes against our homeless neighbors.  Passing the Hate Crimes Against the Homeless Enforcement Act and the Hate Crimes Against the Homeless Statistics Act would be a very strong step in putting an end to the brutal attacks against some of our most vulnerable citizens.

Statement of Prof. Brian Levin
In Support of HR 2216 and 2217 
Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism
California State University-San Bernardino
Congressional Briefing
Rayburn Bldg.
Washington, DC  July 10, 2007

I am Prof. Brian Levin, and I am director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.  I have studied hate crime for twenty years, written extensively on the topic, testified before Congress, authored Supreme Court briefs, and have advised policymakers throughout North America and Europe.

         My testimony today in support of HR 2216 and 2217, the Hate Crimes Against the Homeless Enforcement Act and the Hate Crimes Against the Homeless Statistics Act, will address three crucial questions relating to the inclusion of homeless status in hate crime statutes that involve both enforcement and data collection. First, does the category of homelessness fit the traditional framework of hate crime legislation and share material similarities with currently protected categories? Second, does the actual level of bias violence against the homeless justify the proposed statutory changes? Lastly, is there a significant federal interest for including homeless status in the existing federal statutes.

         Hate crime legislation addresses a qualitatively unique form of victimization that centers on victim identity and discriminatory selection. Certain status characteristics that relate to one’s actual or perceived identity place certain groups of people at a heightened risk of criminal victimization above and beyond that of the general population. These characteristics, despite what you may have heard, relate to how an attacker identifies a victim, and not whether a characteristic is technically “changeable” or mutable. Many hate crime categories like religion, nationality, or disability can be mutable. The fact that one’s religion can be altered does not make it less worthy of protection-and for that reason it is covered in virtually every hate crime statute. Furthermore, the fact that a particular status characteristic, like disability, is one that many would not choose has not precluded its inclusion in many hate crime statutes either.

Again, the two key elements here are an increased risk of victimization and discriminatory victim selection.  With most other types of non-hate crime financial gain or personal motive form the basis of victimization—thus allowing for a better opportunity at prevention, or at the very least, compliance to prevent further harm. However, when one is attacked because of an identity characteristic, like homelessness, the risk of attack is enhanced because victims are not only attacked for what they do, but because of who they are. Offenders are often juveniles or young adults armed with imprecise weapons of opportunity like bricks, bottles or bats. They rely on biased soft-core stereotypes that are triggered into action by a desire for thrill seeking, turf protection, peer validation, or notions of group superiority.

        From a purely criminological perspective, physical attacks against the homeless in this country are indistinguishable from other hate crimes-with one major exception. While offender characteristics, motive, deterrence, injury and weaponry are basically analogous, prevalence differs significantly.  The homeless face a rate of victimization that far exceeds that of traditionally covered groups. The more reliable statistics arising from homicide data and victimization studies indicate that the homeless are among the nation’s most criminally vulnerable population. My Center has found that between 1999 and 2005 there were 82 homicides classified as hate crimes by the FBI. During that same period, the National Coalition for the Homeless reported 169 deaths that were a result of homeless-directed violence. This is more than twice the number of hate crimes reported against currently protected groups—and does not even take into account the fact that the homeless population is relatively small compared to other groups covered in hate crime legislation. When you consider this fact the numbers are even more staggering. For instance, one study of homeless females in Los Angeles found that they experience as much crime in one year as domiciled women do, over their entire lifetime.

          Lastly, it is important to address the federal government's interest of including the homeless in hate crime data collection and enforcement efforts. Uniform national data collection will assist government and policymakers in formulating responses and correcting current deficiencies. The homeless often have a difficult time or a hesitation to interact with police when they are victimized. Moreover, the federal government's victimization survey- intended to capture unreported victimizations - relies on telephone household surveys. Thus, by design it excludes the homeless. For those concerned that the federal government is incapable of collecting such information, I point out that over recent years the FBI has expanded its data collection field to cover over twenty categories and this addition would require only a minor adjustment. For others concerned that violence against the homeless would dilute hate crime data, I point out that over the last two decades various jurisdictions, including the federal government have added categories to their data collection efforts. Moreover, the existing proposal only stipulates that data on violence against the homeless be collected, but does not dictate how it is to be presented.

            The federal interest in protecting the civil rights of those who use public thoroughfares was recognized in the first civil rights laws enacted after the Civil War. Now codified in 18 USC 241, the law punishes those who conspire to deprive the civil rights of others, including those who operate in disguise upon “highways”.  The federal government in modern times has had a hand in regulating the safe construction and use of public thoroughfares and sidewalks by residents. The combination of the funding and regulation of public thoroughfares, coupled with the necessity of protecting the civil rights of residents to safely use these areas creates a compelling case for federal enforcement.

        HR 2216 and 2217 will send a powerful message that we value all life, particularly the most vulnerable among us. We judge a society by how it protects the vulnerable and these measures are an important step to fulfilling that important American ideal.

      Thank you.  I am happy to answer any questions that you may have.


National Coalition for the Homeless
2201 P Street NW
Washington, DC 20037-1033

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