REAL ISSUES

Homeless get hate crimes protections in Maryland

(Originally published: 10/2009) Maryland has recently become a role model in the fight to protect the homeless after passing a bill that grants hate crime protections to individuals based on housing status. On May 7th, 2009, Maryland became the first state in the country to classify and try abuses against the homeless as hate crimes. The bill, Senate Bill 151, expands existing state hate crime laws, which also protect people from crimes targeting race, religious belief, national origin, disability, gender, and sexual orientation. ( Words) – By Adam Sennott & David J. Jefferson

Homeless get hate crimes protections in Maryland

Maryland has recently become a role model in the fight to protect the homeless after passing a bill that grants hate crime protections to individuals based on housing status. On May 7th, 2009, Maryland became the first state in the country to classify and try abuses against the homeless as hate crimes. The bill, Senate Bill 151, expands existing state hate crime laws, which also protect people from crimes targeting race, religious belief, national origin, disability, gender, and sexual orientation.

“I saw that the hate crime statutes already existed in law for other groups that were considered vulnerable,” said Maryland State Senator Alexander X. Mooney, who proposed the bill. “And I thought it was only fair since it exists for some groups that homeless individuals who are certainly as vulnerable, likely more vulnerable then the groups that are already covered on the hate crimes, deserve the same protections as well.” Senator Mooney continued, “All human beings are equal in God’s eyes, including homeless people, and I believe that they should be treated fair.”

On May 7th, USA Today quoted Michael Stoops of the National Coalition for the Homeless as saying of the Maryland bill, “This is a very symbolic and practical step in addressing violence against homeless people.” USA Today also reported that two other states have passed similar protections in recent years. For instance, since 2006 Maine has allowed judges to enact more severe sentences when the victim of a crime is homeless. Similarly, in 2008 Alaska allowed for harsher penalties for crimes against the homeless by adding them to its vulnerable victims law. Other bills that would give enhanced protections to individuals who are homeless are being considered in California, Texas, Ohio, Washington D.C., and in Congress at the federal level.

In Massachusetts, initial efforts have been made to enact a law similar to the one passed in Maryland, though the legislative process is currently at an impasse over the matter. House Bill 2509, “An Act Establishing Certain Hate Crimes” was proposed in 2007 by State Representative Barry R. Finegold. The bill was crafted partially as a response to a horrific incident in 2006 in which a homeless man was assaulted before being lit on fire in the North End’s Langone Park, according to Andrew Ryan of the Associated Press.

“The 2006 attack in Boston really moved him,” Rachael Dane, Press Secretary for Representative Finegold, said of her employer. “It was a senseless and just horrific act on a human being. We want to stress it was a horrific act on a human being. Not just a homeless person, not just someone living on the streets, this is you know, an actual person. That event really moved him to action; it is really what H.B 2509 extends out of.”

The bill, which had 13 co-signers when proposed, did not pass, and it was not repurposed this year. While it remains an important issue to Representative Finegold, he has not decided if he will propose it again. “He didn’t file it again this year because there was a significant lack of support,” Dane said. “However, it’s still very important to him. He still supports extending those provisions.” A list of all 13 co-signers of the original H.B. 2509 was not available at press time, and it is not known whether any of these formerly supportive legislators would again sign the bill if it were reproposed.

Though she was not part of the 2007 bill proposed by Representative Finegold, State Representative Alice Wolf, of the 25th Middlesex District, cautioned against such a bill in Massachusetts if it would only be enacted as a reaction to the bill that passed in Maryland. “Any of these pieces of legislation, or changes, there needs to be kind of a reason for doing it,” Wolf said. “Obviously if there is a reason for doing it then perhaps we should move ahead and do it. But just the fact that they did in Maryland would not be enough reason.” Wolf went on to outline the circumstances in which she believes such a bill should be considered. “If there were a number of incidents where a homeless person was the object of assault and battery, or whatever kind of thing where it was clear that the reason was that the person was homeless” Wolf said. “Then I think that would be worth considering whether we should raise that kind of activity to a higher lever of scrutiny.”

The Washington D.C.-based National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) has reported that crimes against the homeless, some of which are horrific, are on the rise nationally. The Coalition’s website states that in a three year period, from 1999 to 2002, there were 123 murders of people without housing by housed people, 89 victims of non-lethal violence in 98 cities from 34 states and Puerto Rico. Reports have surfaced of attacks against men, women, and children, and have included grievances ranging from humiliating and harmful to lethal and gruesome. According to the Coalition, some of the hate crimes have involved harassment, kicking, setting on fire, beating to death and even decapitation.

NCH has been collecting statistics about crimes against the homeless for over a decade. In the past 10 years, it reports that more than 800 homeless people have been violently attacked in the United States and at least 217 have died from attacks in the same period. In 2007, the most recent year for which data was available, there were 160 attacks, the most in one year since data collection began.

Because of the alarming trends of increasingly frequent violent crimes against individuals without housing by housed people, NCH supports local, state, and federal legislation that would extend hate crime protections to the homeless as a group. At the national level, a bill entitled H.R. 1913: Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 has recently passed in the House and has now moved to the Senate for voting. The bill “Amends the federal criminal code to prohibit willfully causing bodily injury to any person because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of such person,” according to a Congressional Research Service Summary.

While H.R. 1913 would be a victory for human rights advocates, it does not extend the federal hate crime code to include attacks against individuals based on their housing status. Street News Service reported as early as 2003 that NCH was lobbying for the inclusion of homelessness under federal hate crime protection law in an earlier version of H.R. 1913, entitled H.R. 1343, S. 625, which did not pass. Yet despite the persistent lobbying efforts of NCH over the past 6 or more years, attacks against the homeless will still not be classified as hate crimes, even if the current bill, H.R. 1913, becomes law.

If protections against hate crimes that target individuals based on housing status will not be guaranteed at the federal level, it would still possible to decide the issue on a state-by-state basis. With states such as Maine, Alaska, and now Maryland as role models, other local governments could introduce legislation that would protect the homeless from hate crimes. Such laws would be especially important in cities and states with large populations of people who are homeless. According to the Boston Rescue Mission and based on data from the 2006-2007 Greater Boston Census, at that time there were 7,681 homeless men, women, and children living in this city, a number which by many reports has grown since the onset of the economic recession. Given the large number of people that expanded hate crime laws would affect, legislation such as Massachusetts H.B. 2509 is significant, relevant, and increasingly important.

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