The debate is raging whether crimes targeting homeless people should be considered hate crimes. And now it appears that the County of Los Angeles has decided that the answer is yes, at least where statistical collection is concerned.
Currently, more than half of the states in the USA have hate crimes statutes of some type. The United States government also has a federal hate crimes law, plus they have empowered the FBI to collect hate crimes statistics from law enforcement agencies throughout the USA (although not crimes motivated by bias against women — for more information, see PREVENT HATE Exclusive: The FBI’s Hate Crimes Report Ignores Crimes Against Women
) Yet, of all the laws we have, only three municipalities include being homeless into their hate crimes statutes: Seattle, Maine, and Alaska. Is Los Angeles on its way toward inclusion in this small, but potentially growing group?
The County of Los Angeles has decided to begin tracking crimes against homeless people as if they are hate crimes, although they have not (yet?) moved toward legislation. For now, due to an escalated level of criminal activity against homeless people, and in light that homelessness will increase in these tough economic times, they have asked for agencies to consider anti-homeless crimes to be hate crimes, and to begin to collect data on them.
During the last year, the homeless in Los Angeles County have been set on fire, stabbed, shot and beaten with baseball bats in attacks. Advocates for the homeless say the incidents have become more violent but until now no one has tracked such crimes countywide.
Los Angeles County supervisors on Tuesday unanimously recommended that sheriff’s deputies, prosecutors and the county Human Relations Commission start tracking and reporting attacks on the homeless as hate crimes. The vote came as the economy worsens and the number of homeless in the county increases — with some shelters seeing four times as many people seeking help this winter.
Advocates for the homeless called the collection of such data a first step in changing policy and laws. They cite several high-profile incidents in the last year as cause for alarm.
The supervisors’ move does not change the law, a shift that would be necessary for crimes against the homeless to carry enhanced penalties.
Efforts to add the homeless to the state’s hate crime law have failed in the past.
So far only one city and two states have passed such legislation: Seattle, Maine and Alaska, according to the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit National Coalition for the Homeless.
Local legislation is pending in 10 states and Washington, D.C., coalition officials said.
has been part of the conversations between advocates for the homeless and human relations professionals about whether being targeted for crimes because one is homeless should be categorized as a hate crime. Time and again, the same issues keep coming up. First of all, everyone agrees that targeting a homeless person for crime is particularly horrible, but is it a hate crime? Or does it deserve its own categorization?
Well, before we make that decision, we need to delve into the ever-presence of … you got it … political considerations … Come on, you didn’t think this problem could be solved without adding politics into it, did you?
Unfortunately, hate crimes laws are delegitimized by people who consider them the legislation of “thought crimes,” and hence, think there should be no hate crimes laws at all. I disagree with this. Hate crimes speak directly to motive, and I have no problem adding extra penalties onto crimes whose intention is to disrupt society through fear. I really don’t see why that’s so hard to understand. For the perpetrator of a hate crime, a victim is not just a victim whose suffering is contained to the incident. A victim is a first domino whose suffering is meant to spread throughout entire segments of society, and eventually break it down. So yeah, smack some extra social responsibility onto the perpetrators’ sentences as part of a comprehensive system to create more inclusive communities. As long as there are some “carrots” to go along with the “stick,” when crafting public policy, then go for it.
(Then again, do we really want to send more people into a prison system in dire need of reform when they could actually come out a bigger threat to public safety? What do you do when your protective safety valve does the job opposite of what its meant to do?)
Nevertheless, there are quite a number of things to consider before determining whether being homeless should get the same categorization as other protected groups.
Advocates for the homeless will tell you that being homeless is a category that often becomes part-and-parcel of a lifestyle, similar to religion, and that therefore, it deserves the same protections. Clearly homeless people are targeted because of what they are, not what they have done, which is the very essence of a hate crime, so their argument is logical. But then again, what if someone is targeted just for being fat? Or just for being ugly? It happens. Technically, they are hate crimes. People hate them … fell prejudiced against them, and discriminate. But do they deserve inclusion in hate crimes laws? Advocates for homeless people say they are on the right track because targeting the homeless for crime is on the increase and is now a relevant social phenomenon.
Conversely, advocates against including homeless people into hate crimes categorization say that doing so muddies the waters and opens the doors to get rid of such laws altogether by feeding many of the existing arguments already in place against having hate crimes laws. The argument goes that, although well intentioned, the result will not be increased protections for homeless people, but rather, lessened protections for the groups already included in hate crimes legislation. Therefore, they believe crimes against homeless people should have their own protected category, standing on its own.
For more information about hate crimes laws in the United States, please go to: