Maine Adds Homeless to Hate-Crimes Law

Maine has a new tool to fight violence against homeless residents — the state is the first to add homelessness to the state's hate-crimes law. The plan got a boost when a homeless man was allegedly burned to death beneath a bridge in Bangor.

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NOAH ADAMS, host:

It's DAY TO DAY. I'm Noah Adams.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand. Coming up, how a public access show from the disco era became a cult hit on the Internet.

ADAMS: But first, last month, four teenagers from Holly Hill, Florida got long prison sentences for beating a frail, homeless man to death with their fists and with sticks and logs.

Brutal beatings like these have occurred around the country. Maine recently became the first state in the nation to allow judges to hand out stiffer punishment for crimes against the homeless.

Charlotte Albright reports now from Portland, Maine.

CHARLOTTE ALBRIGHT reporting:

Brent Meter(ph) - he likes to be called Z - has a leathery face and a tangled gray beard. He recently moved into subsidized housing for chronically homeless people.

A few years ago, when he was still living on the streets, Z recalls drinking heavily in his makeshift home under a bridge. Two male teenagers taunted him, asking if he was a cop.

Yeah. Serpico, he muttered. And they laughed. But after he passed out, they came back and plunged a knife into his back.

Mr. BRENT METER: The next thing I know I was going, like, Wow. What is that? Then I went, whew. All blood and stuff. And I saw these two punks, the same ones I saw earlier on that day, laughing and running up the path. They didn't try to grab my backpack and rob me or nothing like that. They just did it for something to do. And I said, wow. This is not a good thing.

ALBRIGHT: Z says he regrets never getting around to helping police identify the suspects because he worries they could now stalk his friends.

Earlier this year, another homeless man was attacked in front of a shelter. Transients have even been murdered. Which is why the Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence recently asked over 100 homeless people in Maine about violence on the streets. About a third of them had been physically assaulted, rarely by another homeless person.

Director and co-author, Steve Wessler, says the study focused on Maine because that's where the center is based, but he says the problem is national. He speculates that verbal abusers and assailants try to distance themselves from their impoverished targets.

Mr. STEVE WESSLER (Executive Director, Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence): I think that there is a tremendous anxiety on the part of so many Americans who are one, two, three, four paychecks from insolvency and possibly from losing their car and their home and their job and becoming homeless. And it comes out in anger and it comes out in violence.

ALBRIGHT: But Wessler says victims are reluctant to report such crimes to the very police who often arrest them for minor offenses. The survey shows that teenagers tend to be more physically brutal than older assailants. Wessler blames a lot of that kind of violence, in Maine and elsewhere, on so-called bum fight websites and videos.

In this one, called Bum Hunter, predators dump homeless people out of vans and lash duct tape around their mouths. At one point, they tackle a man wrapped in blankets on the street and sit on his back while insulting him.

(SOUNDBITE of video “Bum Hunter”)

Unidentified Man: You can see that this one is a very young buck, like a pig. You don't find many of these in the wild over in these parts. He's got a lot of extra strength. Maybe he's on drugs of some sort. Possibly cocaine or PCP.

ALBRIGHT: Videos like that are widely accessible and advocates say that homeless people can become easy targets just about anywhere these days.

But recent violence against the homeless has been especially brutal in Florida, California, San Francisco, and Boston. Michael Stoops, director of the Coalition for Homelessness, sites possible reasons for that.

Mr. MICHAEL STOOPS (Executive Director, Coalition for Homelessness): Most of the acts of violence and hate crimes occur in sunny states or tourism states where homelessness and tourism doesn't go hand in hand.

ALBRIGHT: Stoops says homeless people are most conspicuous in these places and therefore most vulnerable to attack. The Coalition for Homelessness tracked 86 incidents of hate violence resulting in 13 deaths against homeless people last year.

In Maine, homeless people lobbied hard for a new law that will allow judges to hand out stiffer penalties for hate crimes against the homeless. But Steve Houston, a formerly homeless advocate, says it wasn't easy for his clients to testify to lawmakers.

Mr. STEVE HOUSTON (Former Homeless Advocate): It's really hard for someone that survives day to day, whether it's getting clothes, finding a place to eat, just daily survival, to not be able to survive at that basic instinct is hard to admit.

ALBRIGHT: While violence against the homeless may be hard to track, Houston says the current crime wave is now too big to ignore. He and others who have been homeless are helping Maine teach tolerance in the schools, and he wants other states to follow that lead.

For NPR News, I'm Charlotte Albright in Portland, Maine.

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