Gotham Gazette

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Time to Pass the Homeless Protection Act

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Gov. Cuomo outlining his 2015 agenda (photo: @NYGovCuomo)

On Saturday morning, in yet another example of the growing trend of attacks on homeless individuals, a traveler at the Newark Liberty International Airport beat a 62-year-old homeless man. The victim, a client in the Urban Pathways Newark Airport Outreach Program, was sleeping when he was attacked. The perpetrator put an innocent man in the hospital with serious injuries. He also potentially disrupted the trust and comfort that the victim developed during outreach, which is so critical to moving him from the street into housing.

Attacks like these against homeless persons appear to be growing in number and severity. In recent days, a homeless man sleeping under a New York City bridge reportedly had his mattress set afire. Last year, a homeless man sleeping on the steps of a Bronx church, a place he often slept because he told the priest that he felt safer at the church, was beaten to death. These are among hundreds of attacks on the homeless that occur each year.

As we work to help the homeless, among the most vulnerable in our society, find stable housing, we must also act to protect their well-being.

New York State should pass the "Homeless Protection Act" (A.1353 and S.813). Stalled in the Legislature for the past six years, the Act would designate certain offenses against the homeless as hate crimes, protecting them from future violence and abuse. Passing the legislation could also raise consciousness about the stigmatization problem at the heart of this issue. If the number of attacks are as high as advocates contend, statistics will open eyes and hopefully cause a long overdue response, further helping homeless individuals move off the streets and into self-sufficiency.

Organizations across the New York City metropolitan area, such as Urban Pathways and Care for the Homeless, provide outreach services to the street homeless, attempting to engage the most difficult to reach. Outreach staff engage homeless individuals on the streets and at transit hubs, "where they are at," and offer case management and referrals to move individuals from the street into housing and treatment programs in order to minimize the chance of a return to the streets.

For the past 15 years, the National Coalition for the Homeless has issued an annual report, documenting the increasingly frequent and severe violence against the homeless by housed individuals. The Coalition report, largely based on media reports, recorded 1,437 attacks and 357 deaths nationally from 2009 to 2013. Precise data on the attacks doesn't exist, since they are often not reported or when reported, not recorded. Attacks as extreme as setting a victim on fire, and videotaping attacks to post online, only further encourage the mistreatment of the homeless.

Homeless people, or those perceived as homeless, are not usually targeted for robbery; they have too few monetary resources for that. According to the Coalition report, perpetrators either have no explanation for the attack or claim they attacked those so in need because they were so vulnerable – so easy – to victimize. Homeless advocates and social scientists often cite "stigmatization" as the base cause. In the ultimate "blame the victim" phenomenon, the poorest among us, are further stigmatized and dehumanized.

A national effort to address this disturbing trend in attacks against the homeless is underway. Poverty and social justice advocates are working to include people attacked because they are homeless, or perceived to be homeless, under hate crime laws. In January, Cincinnati became the third U.S. city to provide hate crimes protection to the homeless. New York State can and must make a major statement by passing the Homeless Protection Act this year.

Nicole Bramstedt is the Policy Analyst at Urban Pathways and Jeff Foreman is Policy Director at Care for the Homeless.
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