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Congressional Briefing on Violence Against the Homeless

On July 10th, 2012, a congressional briefing was held to raise awareness of the violence suffered by the homeless and the efforts made to recognize and decrease the crimes against them. The briefing, titled “Beyond the Numbers: Protecting the Unsheltered from Violence on the Streets,” was sponsored by the National Coalition for the Homeless, in cooperation with the Congressional Caucus on Homelessness. SPSSI James Marshall Public Policy Scholar Angel W. Colón-Rivera took part in the organization of the event. Opening remarks were made by the members of the Caucus on Homelessness, Representatives Alcee L. Hastings, Judy Biggert, Geoff Davis, and Eddie Bernice Johnson. 

In his opening remarks Representative Hastings noted that many victims of homelessness are often whole families, some with parents who both work jobs yet are unable to make a large enough income to keep their homes. Representative Johnson noted that it is deplorable that in a prosperous nation such as the United States 67,495 veterans, who have given their time and risked their lives for their country, are homeless. All representatives emphasized the necessity for further education and action to combat violence against the homeless and that this is a bipartisan issue. They also thanked the panel moderator and members as well as their congressional office staff for making the event possible. 

The event was moderated by Mr. Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. Mr. Donovan opened the event with a report of some of the statistics on violence against the homeless. From 1999 through 2010, there were 1,184 reported acts of violence against homeless peoples committed by non-homeless individuals. Of these attacks 312 resulted in the death of the homeless victim; an average of 1 in 4 attacks having lethal results. In 2010 alone the number of reported attacks against the homeless was 113, 24 of which were lethal. Attacks on the homeless, lethal or not, tend to more brutal than other attacks, which Mr. Donovan noted is due to the homeless being seen as subhuman. The National Coalition for Homelessness reports that in 2010 71% of violent perpetrators were less than 30 years of age; 48% of the perpetrators were under 20 years old.

After the moderator’s introduction a video compilation of violent assaults made upon homeless individuals was shown. Many of the video clips were homemade recordings of young people assaulting elderly homeless people.     

The first panel speaker, representing law enforcement and local strategies, was Mr. Richard Wierzbicki, a Captain from Broward Sheriff’s Office in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Mr. Wierzbicki emphasized the importance of law enforcement involvement in passing legislation to protect the homeless from violence. He related the story of his office’s campaign in Florida to include attacks against the homeless as a hate crime. Following the example of Maryland, that in 2009 became the first state to include attacks against the homeless in its hate crime laws, Mr. Wierzbicki fought to see such legislation instituted in Florida. Florida, which has the highest reports of assault against the homeless, had seen similar legislation fail four years in a row. Mr. Wierzbicki noted that there had been a lack of education on the frequency and brutality of the violence against the homeless. Homeless-on-homeless conflict is often wrongly portrayed as the primary source of violence against the homeless when in reality crimes of the homeless against each other are generally crimes of opportunity and far more frequently violent assault is perpetrated by housed individuals. Mr. Wierzbicki’s efforts to educate legislators resulted in increased support in local legislations, and local wins led to an increase in media interest on violence against homeless. In May 2010, Florida became the second state to include assault against the homeless as a hate crime. 

The second panel speaker, representing homeless victims and advocates, was Mr. David Pirtle, a formerly homeless victim of violence. In addition to being homeless Mr. Pirtle suffered from schizophrenia. He left native Arkansas due to the legislative restrictions that were being placed upon the homeless in that state. In was in New York that his first assault occurred when he was awakened by a blow to the head with a baseball bat. He described the event as particularly detrimental due to its interaction with his schizophrenia; the attack increased his paranoia and caused him to isolate himself further, even from those who might help him. Mr. Pirtle noted that while polls show that 1 in 4 homeless people are victims of assault these numbers are likely an underestimate as many victims do not report attacks. Indeed, in his own case he did not recount reporting the attack, but rather that he crawled into an abandoned building where he hid for three days. Mr. Pirtle explained that violence is the reason many homeless choose to sleep in central areas where the lighting and police presence is greater, but even while living on D.C.’s well-lit Pennsylvania Avenue he suffered assault. He recalls awakening to find his only set of clothing soaked in urine, or on another occasion, spray-painted. Nor was he the only victim, Mr. Pirtle saw others, elderly men and women pushed and hit and being pelted with stones or feces.  

The third speaker was Ms. Maria Foscarinis, the founder and executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. She discussed how for most people homelessness is temporary state that is often due to unfortunate circumstances such as foreclosure or unemployment. She reiterated a point made by Congressman Hastings, that even families that have employment may face homelessness due to low wage jobs. Yearly, more than one million American schoolchildren are homeless. The shortage of emergency shelter results in many being turned away, forcing them to live in public places which greatly exacerbates their vulnerability to violence. Ms. Foscarinis expressed the opinion that homelessness itself should be considered violence against humans and that housing should be considered a human right. 

Ms. Foscarinis noted that another form of assault against the homeless is official discrimination, such as legislation that criminalizes homelessness. She said such legislation is an increasing trend and noted that official sanctions against the homeless literally make these individuals’ existence a crime. She maintained that providing homes is the only real solution to ending homelessness and that as a human right, housing is a bipartisan issue. Ms. Foscarinis called attention to Rhode Island’s recent “Homeless Bill of Rights” as a national model, and emphasized the necessity that comparable legislation be adopted nationwide. In response to a question from Congressman Hastings on how county facilities should deal with homeless “panhandlers” harassing their customers Ms. Foscarinis noted that many people and organizations ask for monetary support through phone, mail, or even in person. Homeless people are merely doing the same without the resources to use phones or mail, and in more dire conditions, because their very survival relies on it. She noted that the primary difference between the efforts of the homeless and those of others is that the plight of the homeless confronts people with desperate poverty that they are not comfortable acknowledging.

By Kristi Carter
SPSSI Summer Intern


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