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Monday, March 4
The Indiana Daily Student

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Advocates seek ways to protect homeless

Homeless and mentally ill, John McGraham died when a man doused him with gasoline and set him ablaze. His sister, Susanne McGraham-Paisley, believes the murder was spurred by a warped hatred of homeless people, yet she has managed to find forgiveness for Ben Martin, who pleaded guilty to the October 2008 killing.

“Ben Martin was sick, mentally sick. He had a thing against homeless people, and he took it out on my brother,” she said.

Martin, 31, faces life in prison without parole when he’s sentenced on Wednesday.
McGraham-Paisley and many homeless advocates argue McGraham’s murder should be classified a hate crime, saying these types of attacks show bias just like racially or ethnically motivated crimes and should carry stiffer prison terms.

But as states grapple with budget cuts and turn to releasing nonviolent offenders to reduce prison costs, advocates seek innovative ways to protect the homeless.

In California, which ranks second in the nation in homeless crimes, an Assembly bill would give homeless people, or public interest groups on their behalf, the right to seek redress by suing their attackers for civil rights violations.

With prisons already overcrowded, “the appetite for any kind of penalty enhancement is limited,” says Will Shuck, spokesman for Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal, who authored the bill.

“This is a way around the physical problem that still addresses the issue,” he said.

In Los Angeles County, the sheriff’s department has started tracking crime against the homeless. More law enforcement agencies plan to join the effort while training police officers to be more sensitive to transients.

Outreach teams of formerly homeless youths will go into schools to teach about the causes of homelessness. The homeless have also been included in the county’s anti-prejudice programs.

Cleveland, Seattle and Alaska have designated homeless people as a protected class, alongside other vulnerable populations such as the elderly and disabled, which can make sentences harsher.

Pressure for homeless hate-crime laws, which have been adopted in Maine, Maryland and Washington, D.C., has increased in recent years as attacks against transients started rising with the popularity of videos called “Bumfights.” Producers give homeless people alcohol in return for doing humiliating acts on videotape.

In 2007, the National Coalition for the Homeless reported 160 attacks against homeless people, including 28 fatalities — up from 142 in 2006.  The number of attacks dropped in 2008, after major retailers removed the DVDs.

But a European Internet video game called “Bumrise”allows players to assume the role of a homeless character moving up from a cardboard box to a penthouse by pickpocketing, collecting cans, fighting and panhandling.

“This all kind of normalizes abuse toward a population that is just so unprotected,” said Neil Donovan, the coalition’s executive director.

Still, many say attacks against the homeless are hard to classify as hate-fuelled violence because the crimes do not involve derogatory symbols or epithets. Others point to homelessness as a transitory state, unlike race, gender or ethnicity.
The key element, they say, is the victim’s weakness.

Homeless people say safety is a constant concern. Many buddy up at night or arm themselves with knives or boxcutters. Joe Thomas, a 60-year-old veteran who’s been living on the streets of downtown LA for the past year, said he seeks out benches in well-lit areas.

“You have people who have a thing about people being homeless,” he said. “We had kids coming down here about three months ago, hitting people in the head with a baseball bat.”

Deanna Weakly, 50, said women are particularly vulnerable. She spent the last four years homeless before obtaining a federally sponsored apartment last month.

With far fewer shelter beds for women, security guards often demand sex or food in exchange for a cot, she said, so she spent nights catnapping on buses, then moved into a county hospital lobby. If men made advances, she screamed to scare them off.

“I’d be wandering around at 3, 4 in the morning with my bags, looking for a place to sleep,” said the former real estate agent. “I always had to have my guard up.”

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