Violence Against the Homeless: Is It Growing?

Senators seek to add attacks on homeless to hate crimes law.

September 29, 2010, 9:33 AM

WASHINGTON, Sept. 29, 2010— -- Norris Gaynor, a 45-year-old homeless veteran, was sleeping on a park bench in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., when he was brutally beaten to death with a baseball bat. His teenage attackers, who were later convicted of second-degree murder, had made assaulting the homeless a sport.

The 2006 incident and others like it in recent years have alarmed advocates for the homeless and law enforcement groups who want the federal government to begin formally tracking the crimes.

"Imagine if that tracking had happened earlier and my brother's attacker would have been identified as someone who was prone to this type of behavior," Gaynor's sister, Simone Manning-Moon, told a Senate panel today exploring a change to federal hate crimes law.

"He was murdered because people resented the homeless and thought that they could continue to prey on the homeless and get away with it."

Maryland Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin and Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins have introduced a bill that would add attacks on homeless people to the list of crimes required to be reported to the Justice Department and FBI.

The government currently collects crime data on race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, disability and gender and gender identity.

"We need to have consistent information collected by the FBI so we know the extent of the problem," Cardin said. "The homeless, just because they're homeless, are being victimized and that has to stop in America."

Last year was the deadliest in a decade for homeless people when 43 were killed, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. Since 1999, there have been 288 fatal attacks on homeless individuals.

"We are seeing a scourge, and we're seeing a shift from traditional hate targets -- gays, African Americans, Jews -- to the homeless," said Brian Levin, a California State University professor who studies homelessness.

Richard Wierzbicki, who heads the hate crimes/anti-bias task force in Broward County, Fla., cited two recent examples of the kinds of crimes against the homeless that he said are on the rise.

In October 2009, two teens shoved, taunted and dragged James Cunningham, 54, by the ankles down a street in Pompano Beach, Fla., while laughing and filming the attack for posting on YouTube.

Two men beat and "stomped on the head" of Johnny Warden, 68, outside a convenience store in Lauderhill, Fla., in June.

"It was almost a sport to them," Wierzbicki said of the attacks. "Studies show these attacks are often more violent because the attackers view them [the homeless] as unhuman."

Advocates for the homeless and members of the law enforcement community say the full extent of the problem cannot be known unless homeless status is added to the federal multi-state reporting system that tracks hate crimes.

But some critics of the legislation say tracking crimes against the homeless is unnecessary and that the problem is overstated.

"Crimes against the homeless, like all other street crimes, should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law," David Muhlhausen of the conservative Hertiage Foundation said.

"But the federal government should not have to collect data on any perceived social problem. The Hate Crimes Against the Homeless Statistics Act is unnecessary."

Muhlhausen noted that more than 15,000 murders occurred last year across the U.S., according to the FBI. The 43 homeless individuals killed is less than one percent of that total.

Still, Sen. Cardin and other panelists said gathering national statistics has little downside.

"I'm astounded by how we could be against collecting data," professor Levin said. "I would be nice to have some common sense prevail here."

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