Florida tops country in attacks against homeless; policy to track violence going ignored

Click on photo to enlarge or download: A homeless woman sits outside the National Postal Museum in Washington,D.C. SHFWire photo by Melhor M. Leonor

As published in the SHFWire: http://www.shfwire.com/violent-attacks-against-homeless

By Melhor Marie Leonor

WASHINGTON – Norris Gaynor was sleeping on the streets of Fort Lauderdale when two teens bashed his skull with a baseball bat.

Gaynor, who was 42 when he died from his injuries in 2006, was one of the “bums” the teens set out to attack.

In December, the NCH released its annual report “Hate Crimes Against the Homeless,” tallying  88 attacks nationwide. Fifteen of these attacks occurred in Florida,the most of any state.

“On a state perspective,it’s discouraging to see that again we leapfrogged California to number one,” said Richard Wierzbicki, a retired captain who worked for the Broward Sheriff’s Office  who continues to advocate for homeless people across the country.

Most victims nationally are men like Gaynor – in their 40s,with 73 percent older than that.

In contrast, half of all attackers were men under the age of 20,and according to the study, this is a larger proportion than in any previous year. The attackers are getting younger.

Michael Stoops, director of community organizing at the NCH,said the data were gathered from a number of sources: law enforcement reports,self-reporting,third parties,such as organizations that assist the homeless, and media reports.

The NCH then studied each case and used a set of criteria to determine if it indeed was a crime inspired by hate – the perpetrators are not homeless and have a demonstrated bias against those who are homeless.

Stoops said that the number of cases in the report is not the real number of attacks,in part  because many cases go unreported.

Capt. Scott Russell, of the Broward sheriff’s office has worked in the field with the homeless population and echoes the concern for underreporting.

Click on photo to enlarge or download: Norris Gaynor,standing at right with his family,was homeless when he was murdered. His sister,Simone Manning-Moon,sitting at right,has worked to end discrimination against individuals who live on the street. Family photo courtesy Simone Manning-MoonClick on photo to enlarge or download: Norris Gaynor,standing at right with his family,was homeless when he was murdered. His sister,Simone Manning-Moon,sitting at right,has worked to end discrimination against individuals who live on the street. Family photo courtesy Simone Manning-Moon“When somebody is at the end of their rope,and they don’t report it,we really don’t know,” Russell said. “So the numbers could be much higher than that because of the population that we’re dealing with – the chronic homeless.” 

Stoops said the NCH utilizes third-party information to document the attacks because,in addition to attacks being underreported,there is no uniform documentation at the national level and local documentation is spotty.

“We do it because,right now,the FBI does not require law enforcement agencies to report out hate crimes against the homeless. So that’s how we do our study,and we have been successful,” Stoops said. “We have been able to get six states to include homeless people in their hate crime statutes since 2006.”

Despite a Florida statute approved in 2010 that requires the state to collect information from law-enforcement agencies on hate crimes against homeless people,the Florida Attorney General’s office reported no incidents in either 2012 or 2013.

The bill was signed by then Florida Gov. Charlie Crist on the spot where Gaynor was killed.

The NCH pushed for federal legislation that became the Violence Against the Homeless Accountability Act. It has now been introduced in four sessions of Congress. The bill would amend the Hate Crimes Statistics Act to require the Justice Department to collect data from law-enforcement agencies about crimes committed against the homeless population.

Of the 88 attacks in 2012,18 resulted in deaths. This is more than the FBI tallied for all  protected classes: race,religion,sexual orientation,ethnicity and disability.

Crimes against these groups are investigated by the FBI in conjunction with local agencies.

“We have been tracking this for 14 years – it’s a serious problem,” Stoops said. “We think that if there is a more scientific compilation of data,that it will show that its even a greater problem than what our annual report has found.”

Rep. Alcee Hastings,D-Fla.,is one of the original cosponsors of the bill and said that passing it will require more sponsors and more data.

“We need to gather information. We need to publicize the information,and make it a crime to hurt … people who are vulnerable in the first place,” Hastings said.

The bill has no Republican sponsors.

Manning-Moon and Wierzbicki testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2010,using Gaynor’s case to “put a face” to violence against homeless people.

“The testimony was attempting to address … the need to gather and assess so that there can be uniformity in addressing these crimes,and that would hopefully lead to tighter legislation on how law-enforcement jurisdiction and agencies are dealing with them,” Manning-Moon said. “I’m just so sorry that our political climate these days is an iceberg that can’t be broken to get this kind of legislation accomplished. It’s critical.”

Russell said his agency has been working on the streets,one-on-one with homeless individuals because he believes developing ties with the homeless population is as important as a legislative approach.

Manning-Moon,said she hopes that bringing attention to the attacks will create a discussion about compassion toward individuals who live on the streets. She said her brother,who suffered from mental illness,had homes available to him but chose to live on the streets.

Gaynor’s killers are serving prison sentences for his murder.

“I hope we learn from a lot of things,including the recession we’ve gone through,that people who are like us can in fact end up on the street,” Manning-Moon said. “That doesn’t mean that they should be treated with any less respect.”

Reach reporter Melhor Leonor at melhor.leonor@shns.com or 202-326-9861. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.

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