Debating Homeless Hate Crimes This month, Maryland became the latest state to add attacks against homeless people to its hate-crime law. But is being homeless a fixed part of a person's identity? Or do moves like this dilute the strength of hate-crimes legislation? One formerly homeless man talks about the dangers of life on the street.

Debating Homeless Hate Crimes

Debating Homeless Hate Crimes

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This month, Maryland became the latest state to add attacks against homeless people to its hate-crime law. But is being homeless a fixed part of a person's identity? Or do moves like this dilute the strength of hate-crimes legislation? One formerly homeless man talks about the dangers of life on the street.

GUY RAZ, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

We usually think of hate crimes as acts motivated by someone's race, color, religion or national identity. But the other week, the House of Representatives voted to expand that definition to include gender, gender identity, sexual orientation and disability. The Senate could vote as early as this week.

Our producer, Kate Davidson, wondered which group of people might seek hate-crime protection next. And she joins me here in the studio.

Kate, what did you find?

KATE DAVIDSON: Well, it turns out there's momentum building around the country to include people who are homeless in state and federal hate-crime law. This month, Maryland became the newest state to do this after Maine. And Washington, D.C., has recently jumped on board as well.

RAZ: So you've been looking into this trend and you've prepared a report for us.

DAVIDSON: That's right, Guy. And, you know, one of the things that's so interesting about Maryland is the man who sponsored this homeless hate-crime legislation four years in a row.

His name is Alex Mooney. He's a state senator from Western Maryland. He's a Republican. And he was known for his earlier opposition to expanding the state's hate-crime law to include sexual orientation. So when he introduced his homeless bill, he says people thought he was trying to dilute the law. But here's what he told me.

State Senator ALEX MOONEY (Republican, Maryland): My view was since we have hate crimes as part of law, it only makes sense to look at truly vulnerable groups to include, not just to include groups that have clout, you know, in one of the political parties. And it's my view, you know, as a Christian, that God created us all equal in his image and likeness. And I think homeless people deserve the same protections as other human beings.

DAVIDSON: Mooney also says that one of the things that inspired him was the rise of bum fight videos in stores and online. So I stopped by the National Coalition for the Homeless here in Washington to watch some myself. Videos like this can get millions of views on YouTube. And just a warning, they're pretty graphic.

Mr. MICHAEL STOOPS (Executive Director, National Coalition for the Homeless): This is - a couple of homeless people are being paid to fight each other in the bathroom in a public park somewhere in Southern California.

DAVIDSON: That's Michael Stoops, the coalition's director of community organizing. He says these homeless people might get paid with a six-pack or a couple of bucks. In exchange, they're duct taped, they beat each other, they slam their heads into buildings.

Mr. STOOPS: And this is the most graphic, a homeless person pulling his own teeth out with a pair of pliers.

DAVIDSON: Sitting nearby at the coalition office is a stocky guy, David Pirtle. He's seen this before.

Mr. DAVID PIRTLE: It's kind of like a flashback experience.

DAVIDSON: Pirtle became homeless in 2004 after suffering a psychotic break. Today, he has an apartment and is on medication to control his schizophrenia. But for two and a half years, he was out, living under a grate in a parking lot, tucked into an abandoned stairwell in New York. That's where he was first attacked.

Mr. PIRTLE: A group of kids basically woke me up with an aluminum bat, beat me all over, cracked one of my teeth and, you know, called me names, and I'm pretty sure they broke a rib.

DAVIDSON: And that was just the beginning. He's been pelted with rocks, kicked in the night.

Mr. PIRTLE: I've been spray-painted. I've been urinated on. And it's always by the same sort of people, you know, young, white males, probably intoxicated. I always say that Friday nights are the worst time to be homeless.

DAVIDSON: To David Pirtle, attacking homeless people is a hate crime, pure and simple, but he also says the homeless are just so vulnerable.

Mr. PIRTLE: You know, I don't think that people are going out to attack homeless people specifically because they hate homeless people. It's just that we're there, and they don't really think of us as real people, kind of part of the scenery. They attack us just like they vandalize a stop sign, basically.

DAVIDSON: Which raises a pretty basic question: are these crimes of opportunity or hate crimes as they're traditionally understood?

Mr. MICHAEL LIEBERMAN (Washington Counsel, Anti-Defamation League): People know what a intentional selection of someone who's black or gay or Jewish is. People do not know what crimes against the homeless, hate crimes against the homeless, are.

DAVIDSON: That's Michael Lieberman. He's the Washington counsel for the Anti-Defamation League and its point man on hate crimes. He says that before legislators insert the homeless into hate-crime laws around the country, they need to understand more about attacks against the homeless.

Mr. LIEBERMAN: What is the definition of homeless? What is immutable about homeless? Is it an immutable characteristic? Is it exactly the same as race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender? It is different.

DAVIDSON: But how different? The ADL thinks the government needs to study this core question. The group stopped short, though, of supporting a bill now in Congress that would require the Justice Department to collect data on possible hate crimes against the homeless.

Meanwhile, some states aren't waiting for federal guidance. Along with Maryland's new law, Florida is considering harsher penalties for attacking homeless people, same thing in South Carolina, where four Greenville police officers resigned last week amid allegations that include physical abuse of the homeless.

RAZ: That's Kate Davidson, one of our producers here at ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

Kate, thanks so much.

DAVIDSON: You're welcome.

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