Santa Cruz IMC
Santa Cruz IMC
Indybay Regions North Coast Central Valley North Bay East Bay South Bay San Francisco Peninsula Santa Cruz IMC - Independent Media Center for the Monterey Bay Area North Coast Central Valley North Bay East Bay South Bay San Francisco Peninsula Santa Cruz IMC - Independent Media Center for the Monterey Bay Area California United States International Americas Haiti Iraq Palestine Afghanistan
From the Open-Publishing Calendar
From the Open-Publishing Newswire
Indybay Feature

AN AMERICAN EPIDEMIC: Hate Crimes Against Homeless People

by chance martin (streetsheet [at]
As disturbing as the case descriptions contained in NCH's report are, what is even more ominous is that homeless people have almost no protection against such cruelty. Poor people are not a protected class under federal civil rights statutes, and none of the current hate crime laws in the United States include or acknowledge hate crimes based on economic or housing status.
Hate Crimes Against Homeless People

by chance martin

Imagine that a new recreational drug emerged on the national scene in 1999, and say it was responsible for 123 senseless and preventable deaths to date. Television newscasts and newspapers would be screaming about such a story. U.S. Representatives and Senators would bluster and blather about it for hours in special hearings (at taxpayer's expense), and the DEA would be tapping telephones, monitoring emails, and kicking in citizen's doors from coast to coast to rescue us from this menace (at taxpayer's expense).

In the four years from 1999 to 2003, two hundred and twelve separate instances of hate crimes committed against homeless people have been documented by the National Coalition for the Homeless' (NCH) Civil Rights Work Group. Responding to these and other civil rights violations, NCH’s Civil Rights Work Group has organized a nationwide network of civil rights and homeless advocates --the National Homeless Civil Rights Organizing Project (NHCROP). NHCROP has established nine field sites in different regions of the country for collecting and reporting hate crimes and other civil rights violations against homeless people: Los Angeles, CA, San Francisco, CA, Portland, OR, Chicago, IL, Jeffersonville, IN, Cincinnati, OH, Atlanta, GA, Austin, TX, Washington, DC. These reports, as well as NCH's findings and recommendations, were recently compiled in a four year study released on April 10th, 2003: Hate, Violence, and Death on Main Street USA: A Report on Hate Crimes and Violence Against People Experiencing Homelessness in 2002.

Now, imagine two hundred African Americans, Arab Americans, Asian Americans, Jewish Americans, etc. were victims of hate crimes in the same four years. Or say it was 200 Latino Americans, or immigrants, or disabled people, or seniors. Or because this is San Francisco, imagine 200 gay, lesbian, transgendered, and bisexual people were violently attacked in circumstances that were clearly motivated by hate, and over half of these misdeeds resulted in violent deaths.

Could we find that acceptable? Not very likely.

The public would be rightly shocked and outraged, voices rising in a reflexive hue and cry to call for an end to this -- the most fundamental violation of anyone's human rights.

Recognizing this disturbing American trend as a "national epidemic," NCH's Executive Director Donald Whitehead charges, "Our country is in its darkest hour. It is time that we expose these acts of cowardice against people without homes. It is time we bring this darkness to light."

In 1968, the U.S. Congress defined a hate crime as a crime in which the defendant intentionally selects a victim because of their race, color or national origin (Title 18 U.S.C Section 245). The first federal law to combat hate crimes, 18 USC Section 245, passed in 1968. It mandated that the government must prove both that the crime occurred because of a victim's membership in a designated group and because the victim was engaged in certain specified federally-protected activities -- such as serving on a jury, voting, or attending public school.1

Hate crimes are commonly called bias-motivated crimes, referring to the prejudice or partiality of the perpetrator against the victim's real or perceived grouping or circumstance. Most hate crimes are not committed by organized hate groups, but by individual citizens who harbor strong resentments against certain groups of people. Some are "mission offenders," who believe they are on a mission "to cleanse the world of a particular evil." Others are "scapegoat offenders," who project their resentment toward the growing economic power of a particular racial or ethnic group through violent actions. Still others are "thrill seekers," those who take advantage of a vulnerable and disadvantaged group in order to satisfy their own pleasures.2

Thrill seekers, primarily teens and young adults, are the most common perpetrators of violence against homeless people in the United States. Experts are at a loss to explain this surge in violent attacks by the young and the strong on the destitute and vulnerable, often blaming violent and sensational media, bad parenting, or a lack of morals.

Since STREET SHEET first reported on this national tragedy (see Summer of Fear - STREET SHEET 9/99) we have regularly monitored news reports of hate crimes against homeless people nationally. What NCH's report fails to state directly, but can be rather easily determined by simply reading the information they've compiled, is that after teens and young adults, the next emerging identifiable group most likely to engage in hate crimes against homeless people are members of local police agencies.

LS Wilson, coordinator for the Coalition on Homelessness, San Francisco's Civil Rights project and a member of NCH's Board of Directors, says he routinely sees police selectively enforcing quality of life laws with homeless people. "When law enforcement regularly targets homeless people for quality of life crimes, the public is left thinking that all homeless people are lazy, drug-addicted criminals. The fact is that homeless folks are far more likely to be victims of violent crimes than perpetrators."

Of violent hate crimes from 98 cities in 34 states and Puerto Rico that NCH has compiled, only 89 of the reported assaults were non-lethal, while 123 have resulted in the murders of homeless people. Among the victims, the oldest was a 74 year-old man, the youngest a four month-old infant.

2002's hate crimes resulted in 16 deaths and 21 injuries from non-lethal violence. 34 men and two women were among the victims. Eleven of these victims were age 54 and older.

Many of the reported hate crimes are so horrific that they should be widely examined as case studies, such as the unsolved serial slayings of seven homeless men in Denver, Colorado's trendy lower downtown district in the fall and winter of 1999. All the victims were beaten to death, one so savagely that his skull was found in pieces, and two victims were also beheaded. The only eyewitness account pointed to several juvenile male suspects seen beating a homeless man in an alley. "It is just as important to find and bring these killers to justice as it is to find the murderer of Jon-Benet Ramsey," declared John Parvensky, director of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.

Of the eighteen homeless people who were reported victims of beatings last year, eleven died as a result. Of the four case descriptions of homeless people set afire while they slept in 2002, two resulted in fatalities. Three reported shootings of homeless people -- one these by an off-duty fireman -- added two deaths and three wounded to 2002's total body count.

In Los Angeles, bus driver Cruz Vaca refused to permit a homeless citizen in that city's Koreatown district to board his eastbound bus. "You are not going to get on my bus," Vaca shouted as the man banged on the door. The homeless man then moved in front to block the bus, but the determined Vaca ran him down. Only after passengers screamed for the driver to stop was the homeless man's body was recovered from under the bus. Cruz Vaca faces a mere six years in prison if convicted.

Two Hyattsville, Maryland police officers were indicted for first and second degree assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct because they beat and turned a police dog on 28 year-old Hector Millan. This occurred only months after former Prince George's County, Maryland officer Stephanie Mohr was convicted for violation of civil rights under color of law for releasing her police dog to attack homeless sleeper Ricardo Mendez, who already had his hands up against a wall.

Not so fortunate was Luis Rafael Objio, who managed to survive two gunshot wounds at the hands of a Tampa, Florida police officer. Two witnesses watched the officer aggravating the mentally disabled 45 year-old until he produced a putty knife to defend himself, and then they pleaded with the officer not to shoot. Another witness who owned a grocery store near the scene cited the incident as another example of excessive police force, saying, "Rafael wouldn't bother nobody."

Witnesses to a Fort Worth, Texas, homeless beating certainly weren't as concerned about the safety of 39 year-old Ronald Watkins. According to police accounts, after Watkins fell to the ground in a fight with someone he was seen arguing with earlier, several onlookers joined in, stomping and kicking Watkins to death.

As brutally painful as his death must have been, it was far more merciful than that of Gregory Glenn Biggs, also of Fort Worth, who died after a hit-and-run accident in October of 2001. The driver stuck Biggs on her way home from a bar, continued home and parked her car in her garage with Biggs still alive, but trapped in her windshield as a result of the impact. Biggs could have still survived, because he pleaded for help for most of the two days he lay bleeding to death in the dark garage. To her credit, or her shame, the driver, 25 year old Chante Mallard, did finally summon help -- to help her in dump Biggs' lifeless body in a nearby park.

2002's non-lethal attacks make for some of the most disturbing accounts, like the group of patriotic young men in Anchorage, Alaska who celebrated Independence Day by burning a homeless man with sparklers. Two separate reports from Tucson, Arizona and San Diego, California detailed homeless people being hunted down and pelted by paintball enthusiasts; in the San Diego case the offenders were off-duty enlisted Navy personnel.

But in all 2002's litany of shame, the report that stands out as perhaps most indicative of the larger societal problem was that of self-styled "citizen activist" Al Gallego, age 65, of Las Vegas, Nevada. Quality of life zealot Gallego became so incensed at the sight of a homeless man with pants down and attempting to defecate against a wall that he used his pickup truck to trap this fecal offender against the wall and summoned police. Much to Mr. Gallego's surprise, the officers who responded arrested this vigilante for assaulting the homeless man with a deadly weapon. Gallego's charges, unfortunately, were later dropped.

Even if his charges weren't dropped, another news item raises serious doubts about the quality of justice that homeless people might expect in court: In May of 2001, Washington D.C. Superior Court Senior Judge Tim Murphy ignored the pleas of a homeless man as he lay dying. Robert L. Waters Jr., a homeless asthmatic on trial for public drinking, collapsed in Murphy's courtroom, begging "Sir, I believe I'm dying... Please, help me, somebody. Help me, please. I can't breathe." Judge Murphy ignored his cries and continued to call other cases.

"He can lie there," the judge said. "Won't affect business one bit."

Hours later, despite every effort from the paramedics who were summoned too late, Robert Waters died, leading one Washington Post editorial writer to observe, "Before Judge Tim Murphy came along, you would have thought that a courtroom was the one place where everybody had a right to be heard."

"The whole scene is a testimony to the fact that the mill of justice can grind the humanity out of you," Vincent L. Schiraldi, president of the Justice Policy Institute -- a D.C.-based nonprofit promoting alternatives to incarceration -- was quoted saying. "It's like these guys don't have names and faces, just numbers on a court jacket... The court was so eager to mete out justice that they couldn't pause a moment to save one of the throng."

The report cites California as the most lethal state in which to be homeless. Thirty two separate violent acts were reported in 18 of the Golden State's cities, including six hate crimes in Santa Cruz, five in San Diego, three in Los Angeles, and two each in San Francisco, Sacramento, Modesto and Santa Ana. Reported hate crimes resulted in 20 deaths and 15 non-lethal acts of violence.

"California has always had more of a tourist economy, so homelessness there is often noticed more. I believe the lack of meaningful response from local officials has helped create a backlash of violence against homeless people there," says Michael Stoops, Director of Community Organizing for NCH.

The San Francisco Coalition's LS Wilson, who was once homeless himself, says "Officials here spend more time, money, and energy criminalizing poor and homeless people than addressing homelessness' root causes... like housing, healthcare, and employment. The end result is a game of 'blame the victim', producing no real solutions for ending homelessness."

On a more positive note, one other factor that may account for the increased reporting of homeless hate crimes in California is the efforts of the California Homeless Civil Rights Organizing Project (CHCROP) -- a statewide network of homeless and civil rights advocates (including the Coalition on Homelessness) and service providers that was organized in 1999 as a response to awful record of civil rights abuses against homeless Californians.

"California homeless advocates know what's going on. CHCROP has done a great job of documenting civil rights abuses and hate crimes. They're advocating for the civil rights of homeless people, and poor and homeless people in California are learning how to fight back," reported NCH's Stoops.

As disturbing as the case descriptions contained in NCH's report are, what is even more ominous is that homeless people have almost no protection against such cruelty. Poor people are not a protected class under federal civil rights statutes, and none of the current hate crime laws in the United States include or acknowledge hate crimes based on economic or housing status.

Police seemingly prioritize investigations of violent crimes against homeless people only when the need can no longer be ignored. Few of these crimes are ever actually reported to law enforcement; homeless people are reluctant to report violent crimes for many reasons, from investigating officers' frequent attitudes of derision and suspicion toward homeless victims, to fear of the police in general stemming from quality of life enforcement practices.

Law enforcement agencies' fear and hatred of homeless people is demonstrated daily by sanctioned disregard for homeless people's basic safety. When the average number of yearly reports detailing police violence to homeless people is now joined by accounts of firefighters, enlisted military personnel, city bus drivers, superior court judges, even would-be "citizen watchdogs" attacking people without housing, can we at least agree this is one problem that is serious and growing?

And exactly who do we suppose utters the real message that America is telling its youth?

Discrimination against people experiencing homelessness is becoming commonly accepted in today's society. For instance, shock-jock Michael Savage, the popular host of the radio talk show "Savage Nation," said on April 23, 2002 that, "In a sane society, they [bums] would be beaten up, thrown in a van, and thrown in a work camp."

Statements like this reinforce negative stereotypes of homelessness, and often serve to ferment violent acts against homeless individuals. "People like Mr. Savage think their portrayals of homelessness are entertainment, but their words help inform a growing public fear and hate of homeless people," NCH Director Donald Whitehead told STREET SHEET.

"As more and more men, women and children are forced into poverty by worsening economic conditions and the widening and growing gap between the rich and the poor, their cries for help are not being greeted with kindness or benevolence, but are instead being greeted with apathy, violence and hate."

April of 2002 saw the release of "Bumfights: A Cause For Concern" -- a parade of gratuitous violence and gore depicting the worst imaginable behavior of homeless people in Las Vegas and Southern California. This un-rated video, promoted by radio shock jock Howard Stern and denounced on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, is available for sale on the internet. It consists of street brawls, scary stunts, even a parody of "Crocodile Hunter," called "Bum Hunter," who dons safari attire and startles sleeping homeless men by tackling them and binding their ankles, wrists, mouths with duct tape. Besides fighting, footage also includes several "Jackass"-inspired stunts, like a homeless man ripping out his front teeth with pliers, and a man identified as "Rufus the Stunt Bum" careening down a flight of concrete steps in a shopping cart.

The film's producers, Las Vegas natives Ray Leticia and Ty Beeson, sold 250,000 copies of Bumfights by July of that year at about $22 apiece. They are estimated to have earned more than $2 million since the video's initial release, turning the two 24-year-olds into sudden millionaires.

Leticia and Beeson denied paying anyone to incite violence, and in prior media interviews claimed they never paid anyone in the film. Later they acknowledged that they gave money and food, but maintained these were gifts "because they're our friends."

Leticia and Beeson's story has been reported to be inconsistent in other ways. For instance, the pair claimed in interviews that they were graduates of film schools at University of Southern California and University of California at Los Angeles. UCLA's records show Beeson applying and never attending school there, and USC has no record of either man. Then Leticia claimed that they instructed those schools not to reveal that they attended, but when pressured he snapped, "We attended film schools in L.A. That's all we'll say."

Judge Lannie Brainard, saddled with the unhappy task of deciding whether enough evidence exists to proceed to criminal and civil trials, watched openmouthed as scenes from the Bumfights tape were played in her courtroom, like the one where a homeless man named Donald Brennan is shown having sex with a woman described as a drug-addicted prostitute. This was after the filmmakers paid him $100 to have "Bumfight" tattooed on his forehead. Since then, Brennan has claimed the tattoo is a mark of shame and the filmmakers took advantage of his alcohol dependence to get him to agree.

Now the filmmakers are being sued by Brennan and Rufus Hannah, AKA "Rufus the Stuntbum," for assault and battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress and civil rights violations.

"The real bums are the bums behind the camera, not the ones in front of the camera," asserted Browne Greene, attorney for Mr. Brennan and Mr. Hannah. "And those are the ones we're going after."

Enlisting support from over 400 organizations, including the National League of Cities, the National Organization of Women (NOW), and Volunteers of America, the National Coalition for the Homeless aims to use their report to make lawmakers and the public aware of this grave issue, and recommend proactive measures to instigate change and ensure protection of civil rights for everyone, regardless of their economic circumstances or housing status.

NCH has advanced several recommendations to actively stop hate crimes against people experiencing homelessness. Among these steps, the National Coalition is calling for a public statement from the U.S. Department of Justice acknowledging that hate crimes and violence against homeless people is a serious national trend. They are further asking that agency to maintain a national database to track these crimes. NCH is also actively working Capitol Hill to have housing status included in pending federal hate crimes legislation.

The Hate Crimes Statistics Act of 1990 (HCSA) mandates the Justice Department to collect data from law enforcement agencies about "crimes that manifest evidence of prejudice based upon race, religion, sexual orientation, or ethnicity."3

The Hate Crimes Sentencing Enhancement Act, enacted as a section of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, defines a hate crime as "a crime in which the defendant intentionally selects a victim, or in the case of a property crime, the property that is the object of the crime, because of the actual or perceived race, color, national origin, ethnicity, gender, disability, or sexual orientation of any person." This measure only applies to, inter alia, attacks and vandalism which occur in national parks and on federal property.4

The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act (HR 1343, S. 625), introduced in the 107th Congress, enjoys broad bipartisan support, with 250 co-sponsors in the House and 51 co-sponsors in the Senate. These companion bills, which are expected to be re-introduced in the current session of the 108th Congress, would strengthen existing hate crime laws two ways: 1) by expanding the current laws to reach all cases where victims are killed or injured due to their religion, color, national origin or race; and, 2) by expanding the U.S. Department of Justice's ability to prosecute those who commit violent crimes against others because on their gender, disability, or sexual orientation.

NCH's goal here is to have housing status included among the classes protected by the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and all future hate crimes legislation.

No American city currently enjoys sufficient affordable housing stock, or even enough shelter beds, for all of its homeless residents. Because homeless people are then forced to live on the streets or camp outdoors, these circumstances leave them extremely vulnerable to attacks and retaliation. Many hate crimes go unpublicized and unreported, making it difficult to assess the true situation. Again, homeless people often won't report crimes committed against them for such reasons as mental illness, substance abuse, fear of retaliation, past experiences, or frustration with police. NCH reasons that if they know that they're protected by law, and a system is in place to prosecute such crimes, homeless people will be far more likely to come forward and report hate crimes committed against them.

NCH is also calling on Congress for a General Accounting Office (GAO) investigation into the nature and scope of hate crimes and violent acts that occur against people experiencing homelessness.

"A GAO study is urgently needed to shed light on this frightening trend of hate crimes and violence," asserts NCH's Michael Stoops. "These horrific acts of violence threaten the lives of the over 3.5 million women, men and children experiencing homelessness each year."

Currently, NCH relies on news reports and information relayed to them by advocates, shelters, and other homeless service agencies around the country to compile data on hate crimes against homeless people. The National Coalition acts as the nationwide repository of hate crimes and violence against homeless people, but there is no systematic method of collecting and documenting such reports. Some cases from 2002 were also omitted because the victims were found beaten to death, but no suspects could be identified. Alarmingly, the report also does not take into account the large number of sexual assaults on homeless women.

NCH's Stoops adds, "One big reason why we're calling for a GAO report is that our report is by no means complete." He estimates that news items and reports from local homeless advocacy agencies compiled by NCH account for only 25-50% of the total number of such violent acts.

A GAO study would examine perpetrators' behavior, beliefs, prevention, education and law enforcement strategies. NCH's request for this study has been endorsed by over 400 local and national organizations.

For more information, including a listing of all the cities and states cited in the report, a list of all the organizations endorsing NCH's recommendations, and sample letters of endorsement as well as sample letters to elected officials, please see

1 Anti-Defamation League,

2 U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs,

3 Leadership Conference on Civil Rights,

4 Anti-Defamation League,

Add Your Comments
Listed below are the latest comments about this post.
These comments are submitted anonymously by website visitors.
just say NO to ADL
Mon, May 19, 2003 11:32PM
We are 100% volunteer and depend on your participation to sustain our efforts!


$ 70.00 donated
in the past month

Get Involved

If you'd like to help with maintaining or developing the website, contact us.


Publish your stories and upcoming events on Indybay.

IMC Network