Hate Crimes Against the Homeless

Commentary by U.S. Senator Benjamin L. Cardin

U.S. Senator Benjamin L. CardinLast week, I chaired an important Judiciary subcommittee hearing that I found extremely upsetting and troubling. It focused on the increasing number of violent attacks on individuals who are homeless, a population that is often our most vulnerable. From being beaten to death by a baseball bat to being doused with gasoline and set ablaze, the number of brutal attacks on people who are homeless—simply because they are homeless—is frightening and growing.

Last year, I introduced the Hate Crimes Against the Homeless Statistics Act, S. 1765, a bipartisan bill co-sponsored by Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins that would require the FBI to add homeless status to the data it collects on hate crimes. Current law requires that data be collected from law enforcement agencies about hate crimes that are based on race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, disability and gender or gender identity. My legislation would expand that data collection classification to hate crimes against the homeless.

Homelessness is a growing problem in our nation, particularly as poverty rates have increased. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, in 2009 approximately 643,000 individuals were homeless on any given night, and approximately 1.56 million people—one out of every 200 Americans—spent at least one night in a homeless shelter. Veterans comprise 20 percent of our homeless population and families displaced because of domestic violence make up another 28 percent. According to the Maryland Department of Human Resources, the number of homeless parents seeking emergency shelter has more than doubled in the last five years.

While there is currently no official accounting of hate crimes against the homeless, for 11 years the National Coalition for the Homeless has documented attacks on homeless individuals and the information is alarming. In 2009, 43 homeless individuals were killed from vicious attacks that included bottles, bats, pipes, gasoline and other objects. To illustrate how serious a problem these biased-based attacks are on the homeless, we can compare statistics from the National Coalition and the FBI in 2008. According to the FBI crime statistics, in 2008 seven homicides were classified as hate crimes under the current definition, which does not include the homeless. The National Coalition for the Homeless, however, reported 27 fatal attacks for the same year, pointing to an alarming increase in the number of hate crimes committed against homeless persons. It is time that we establish accurate and reliable data collection on these types of hate crimes and my bill would accomplish that goal.

Homeless people are part of America. Every day we see veterans, fathers, mothers and families with children who have been forced by circumstances to live on the streets. They are among our nation’s most vulnerable citizens and too often they find themselves the target of violent crime. America’s homeless deserve the same respect and dignity afforded all Americans.

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