A hate crime is an attack on an individual solely because of that individual's perceived membership in a group, be it ethnic, religious, disability or sexual orientation. Current federal laws do not include the homeless under hate crime protection. As the rate of violent crimes against the homeless continue to rise, it's time to define these unthinkable acts for what they are: hate crimes.
From 1999 to 2008, there were 880 acts of violence against homeless people that resulted in 244 deaths. Causes of death include being decapitated, set on fire and pelted with glass bottles. Who can argue that these victims were targeted for any reason other than their homelessness?
By allowing these violent crimes to be punished on an ad-hoc basis, rather than categorically declaring them hate crimes under existing hate crimes laws, we are allowing our country's most vulnerable to be dehumanized. Once homeless people have become dehumanized, it will only be more difficult to secure assistance at the federal and state levels for the necessary housing, addiction services, education and job training to help them better their lives.
The benefit of having homelessness categorized as a hate crime criteria would be stricter automatic punishments for offenders, higher stakes serving as a deterrent, and most importantly, the perception inside the homeless community and outside of it that the U.S. government and justice system recognize the plight of people living without reliable shelter.
Citizens of this country must stand up for the civil rights of the nation's homeless, many of them veterans. They may not live in a home, but they do live in America.
Photo credit: Tony Webster