Homeless increasingly targeted for hate crimes
Modesto police called the attacks cowardly, random and unprovoked. Two 55-year-old homeless men — severely beaten, bloodied and ...
The Modesto Bee
MODESTO, Calif. — Modesto police called the attacks cowardly, random and unprovoked.
Two 55-year-old homeless men — severely beaten, bloodied and unconscious — were found lying in public bathrooms at Modesto's Enslen and Graceada parks in June 2008.
Police arrested 23-year-old Michael Boogie Anthony Hardwick Jr., of Modesto, for the crime. He was sentenced in April to six years in prison.
"They didn't have anything. They were homeless," Deputy District Attorney Wendell Emerson said of the victims. "I think it was just a cruel crime where he just picked vulnerable victims who couldn't fight back."
New data show homeless people nationwide were singled out in more than 1,000 attacks over the last 11 years by perpetrators motivated by anti-homeless hostility and a perception of their victims as easy targets.
Last year was the deadliest in a decade for hate crimes against the homeless, with 43 people killed, according to the report by the National Coalition for the Homeless. That's an increase from 27 killings in 2008.
The Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group chronicled such brutal crimes as homeless people doused with gasoline and set on fire and others beaten with aluminum baseball bats, golf clubs or pipes. The research showed some assailants killed merely for the sport of it — a "thrill kill" in police slang.
"It's just a sad commentary," said Brian Miller, a pastor and an advocate for the homeless in Turlock, Calif. "What is it in the heart of humanity that you could take someone so down that they're homeless and commit a violent crime against them?"
Three hate crimes highlighted in the report were allegedly committed against homeless people in Merced, Sacramento and Fresno counties during 2009:
Six young men entered a homeless encampment in Merced, punching a homeless man multiple times in the ribs and hitting his girlfriend in the face as she tried to intervene. "They were just picking on anyone they could find," the male victim said.
A Sacramento man who was listening to music alone suffered seizures and a concussion after a group of "thrill-seekers" reportedly pummeled and stomped on him as onlookers cheered.
In a story that made national headlines, a Fresno police officer was alleged to have held a 54-year-old homeless man's hands behind his back while another officer repeatedly punched him in the face. Bystanders had initially called police to aid the homeless man, who they believed was ill. One person caught the incident on video. The homeless man has since filed a civil-rights lawsuit against the officers.
Neil J. Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said a festering resentment or hatred of the homeless may be driving more people to take action against them.
Donovan said people's own economic insecurities — including worries about possibly finding themselves on the street one day — can drive people to transfer those frustrations onto the homeless.
"It's the fear of that being your face in the mirror," Donovan said.
Feelings of exasperation with some of Modesto's homeless played out in front of the City Council in June, which in a split vote decided to take back McClatchy Park from the homeless who inhabit it. Council members approved a plan restricting use of the downtown park to those who make reservations and pay fees. This was prompted by downtown business owners complaining about public urination, alcohol use, drug dealing and verbal abuse of park visitors.
That debate reflected people with good intentions struggling with how to balance the needs of a downtown business community and the challenges presented by the homeless.
Modesto's streets, however, can be cruel.
On a recent Thursday in Modesto's Moose Park in the La Loma neighborhood, 52-year-old Wesley Raper recalled being hit repeatedly with beer bottles while riding his bike through the streets. A few weeks earlier, a cap on his front tooth was knocked loose when he was kicked in the face by a group of drunken men, Raper said.
Georgia Baron, 24, pointed out the scars that still mark her knee where teenage boys threw rocks at her as she walked down a Turlock street. Waiting in line for lunch at the Salvation Army Center in downtown Modesto, Baron said she's learned not to fight back.
"They did it every day I came by," Baron said. "They were just having fun."
Neither Raper nor Baron reported those attacks to police, which is common, according to the study.
"I took my butt-whuppin,' " said Raper, who worked as a manager at Lowe's before he became homeless. "If they shot me, I wouldn't call the cops."
Jeffrey Williams, 47, said he knows how to protect himself but still feels scared living on the streets. A group of men once jumped his friend as the man walked to the store, leaving him lying in the street and bleeding from his head.
"You see a group of people walk toward you and you tense up," Williams said.
On Aug. 24, homeless advocates claimed a victory when California legislators passed a bill that would let homeless crime victims use hate-crime statutes to seek justice from their attackers in civil court.
Homeless people brutalized for no reason other than that they live on the street could sue their attacker for enhanced penalties. State law already grants that right for those victimized based on gender, race and other statuses.
"The stories of these attacks can break your heart," said the bill's author, Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal, a Democrat from Long Beach. "The only common threads are merciless cruelty on the part of the attackers, and homelessness on the part of the victims."
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