The weapons: steel bars, bats, Tasers, fists, feet and fire. The perpetrators: not hardened criminals but teenage boys. The crime: "bum bashing." It's a sadistic pastime for a rising number of teens: brutally attacking homeless people in public places. Sometimes the injuries land victims in the hospital. Sometimes they are fatal.
More than 140 homeless people were violently attacked in the United States in 2006, resulting in 20 deaths, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. That was a 65 percent increase from the previous year, when 86 homeless people were violently assaulted, including 13 homicides. Click HERE to read and view ABC's affiliate coverage about these vicious crimes.
In most cases no one is around when it happens, but what if someone were? What if you were to witness such an attack. What would you do?
ABC News conducted one of the most physically threatening of the "What Would You Do?" experiments to find out how people would react to this very real situation. We rigged a block in a suburban New Jersey town with hidden cameras and hired actors to simulate a "bum bashing" attack, using stage combat techniques taught by a master fight choreographer. Click HERE to watch video of the training sessions. With local police at our side, we watched to see what would happen.
"Whoa! Something stinks around here. Smelly man! I thought they already picked the trash up," one of the teen aggressors said as he approached our "homeless man."
The teens' demeaning insults quickly escalated into what looked like physical harassment. They shoved the man, pushed him to the ground and tossed his belongings around in a cruel game of "keep away."
Within moments, heads heads of passersby were turning. Clearly rattled by the violence, some hesitated to get involved. Others mobilized instantly and confronted the actors.
One bystander, Ramin Missaghieh, stepped right into the middle of the commotion. With a nudge, he dispersed the teens while another man escorted the homeless man to safety.
"No one deserves to be treated like that," Missaghieh said. "I always step in. I don't assume that somebody else is going to take care of it."
Colgate University psychology professor Carrie Keating said people were quick to get involved because the homeless man clearly could not defend himself against the three aggressors.
"It's not at all an ambiguous situation," Keating said. "Help was definitely needed here. Plus ... help had to be fast, as 911 wasn't gonna do it. Not quick enough."
An Escalating Threat
One after another, individuals became outraged by the actors' abuse and chose to put themselves at risk to defend the victim. One woman, Joan Bilyk, stood in the middle of the street while reprimanding the boys, oblivious to the honking horns of cars trying to pass.
Bilyk said she did not really think about her own safety at the time. "I was more mad than frightened. I was furious," she said.
But what if the threat were even greater? Would people be as quick to react if the troublesome teens entered with a potential weapon, like a baseball bat? Of course, the bat used in this experiment was actually rubber, but the concerned citizens of this small town didn't know that. Nor were they deterred by it.
From across the street, a man named Henry McNally marched toward the boys, yelling, "What the hell are you guys doing? LEAVE HIM ALONE!"
While McNally headed off to call the cops, as police recommended, another bystander, Cathy Owens, charged in.
"You're being little punks! That's a human being standing there! You don't get to lay your hands on him," Owens yelled. "Put that bat down right now!"
Keating said that the bat, instead of being a deterrent, actually propelled people to get involved.
"That bat signaled that it was in fact an emergency, and it made it crystal clear that action had to be taken," she said.
Owens also said, as a mother of teens, her intervention was instinctual.
"I wouldn't want my children to behave that way," she told us. "I wouldn't want them to have to see that in the town that they grew up in, either. It's horrible."
A Disturbing Reality
The simulated situation is not unrealistic. Experts are concerned because the so-called "bum bashers" keep getting younger. In 2007, three boys in Florida were charged with beating a homeless man using pieces of concrete. Two of the accused were just 10 years old.
Mary Brosnahan, the executive director of the New York City-based Coalition for the Homeless, said about 70 percent of those who attack the homeless are under the age of 25, and many are between the ages of 13 and 19.
"It's incomprehensible, and I think that it really starts with the parents' attitudes toward poor people," Brosnahan said. "For some people, they've stopped seeing them as people without homes. ... They're seeing them as subhuman."
Further fueling this "bum bashing" trend is the "Bumfights" video series, Brosnahan said. Widely popular among teenage boys, the DVD series casts violent pranks and physical assaults on homeless people in a humorous light.
"It's really shocking, because it's everything from getting people with alcohol problems drunk and having them fight each other to [an actor] actually stalking homeless people that are asleep and then assaulting them. ... And this is supposed to be funny," Brosnahan said.
Altering the Experiment
For the people who stepped up to protect our homeless man, the situation was no laughing matter -- they were angry and quick to react. We wondered if the same reaction would occur if the teen harassed a homeless woman. Though our taunters' actions were less physical (no bat involved), the bystanders' responses were even faster and more physical.
One man, Mijo Suric, jumped in immediately when he saw the teens taunting the homeless woman. Suric yelled at the trio and shoved one of the teens who wouldn't step away from the woman.
"We do see women as more vulnerable, more helpless," Keating said. "That's the stereotype and that might have promoted even quicker action."
The woman victim not only elicited a quicker response but also an extra touch of compassion. After chasing the teens away, one person offered the homeless woman money. Others offered rides, and apologized to her for the teens' behavior.
A Community at Work
For both the homeless man and woman, members of this community stepped in within seconds, but rarely did they work alone. Time and again, small crowds gathered to surround the aggressors.
"When we have a sense of community, we're empowered," Keating said. "And it was as if the people who intervened were saying, with their anger, 'Not here, not now, not in my town.'"
Brosnahan admits it's heartening to see so many identify with the plight of someone less fortunate.
"What I try to think of is, I didn't know this person growing up but can guarantee this isn't how they wanted to turn out," Brosnahan said. "They have the same dreams we do."
That's a sentiment echoed by Teresa Fuller, one of our victim's champions: "A lot of us are one paycheck away from being homeless ourselves."