By Erika Bolstad
The foreclosure crisis, high unemployment, and stagnant wages have increased the number of homeless people on U.S. streets, a trend that activists for the homeless told a congressional panel might expose more people to violence.
The Congressional Homeless Caucus on Tuesday renewed its call for Congress to pass legislation that would require federal authorities to better track violent acts against the homeless.
"We know this is a sinister trend happening across America," said Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar. "Homeless men and women and children are being brutally assaulted just because they live on the streets."
Few crimes against the homeless received as much attention as the ghoulish attack in Miami in May by Rudy Eugene on a 65-year-old homeless man Ronald Poppo. Eugene, 31, was shot to death by a Miami police officer when he found him chewing Poppo's face on a sidewalk on the MacArthur Causeway. Poppo remains hospitalized.
Other incidents with the homeless are merely demeaning, said David Pirtle, who lived on the streets of New York City and Washington D.C. Rendered fragile by mental-health problems, the abuse only made him more paranoid and less likely to seek help.
"Kids would come by and throw rocks at me," he told the panel. "People would kick me in the head when I was asleep, and they'd run off laughing. I was spray-painted by some kids. I was urinated on."
Homeless advocates cite such crimes as an example of the type that should be better tracked nationwide, so that local and federal authorities who address homelessness issues have a better sense of what resources are needed to curtail such violence.
The caucus praised a 2010 Florida law pushed by the Broward Sheriff's Office after three teens went on a violent spree against three homeless men in downtown Fort Lauderdale. It left Jacques Pierre and Raymond Perez severely beaten and Norris Gaynor dead, and prompted the inclusion of homeless people in the state's hate-crime laws.
Broward Sheriff's officers are "very proud" that Florida became the second state to include the homeless in such laws, BSO Captain Rick Wierzbicki told the caucus. Since then, they've talked to authorities in Colorado and other states interested in similar laws.
"This is something we knew we needed to do," he said. "Law enforcement got behind it. We weren't going to be stopped."
The National Coalition for the Homeless isn't pursuing changes that would categorize crimes against homeless people as federal hate crimes. But it does want Congress to pass laws that would require local law enforcement to better track crimes against the homeless, said Neil Donovan, executive director of the coalition.
Some laws addressing homelessness might inadvertently contribute to conditions that could escalate violence against homeless people, some advocates say.
Criminalizing some aspects of homelessness -- such as outlawing sleeping in public places or panhandling -- makes it a crime "simply to exist" for many of the homeless, said Maria Foscarinis, founder and executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. The sense that the homeless aren't fully human contributes to a climate that leads to violence, she said. She praised a Rhode Island initiative that prohibits discrimination against people who lack a place to live.
"We can think of homelessness itself as a form of violence," she said. "Simply being without a place to live in a country that has the resources, has the capability of housing everybody, is a form of violence in my view."