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Make attacks on homeless hate crimes: Lancman bill

A new report documenting violent acts against homeless people prompted state Assemblyman Rory Lancman (D-Fresh Meadows) to introduce legislation last week that would classify attacks against the homeless as hate crimes.

“There is an epidemic of violence against the homeless nationally,” Lancman said.

The legislation, announced at an Aug. 12 press event, comes on the heels of a National Coalition for the Homeless report released last week that documents a rise in violence against homeless people over the last decade. According to the report, there have been more attacks against homeless people than all other categories of people covered under hate crimes legislation combined.

Fifty-eight percent of violent acts against homeless people are committed by teenagers, the report found.

“There’s a sick culture developing where attacking homeless people is considered fun or sport,” Lancman said. “If you go on YouTube and type in ‘bum fight,’ countless videos will pop up of people committing violent acts against homeless people.”

A homeless man in Manhattan died in 2007 after three teenagers set him on fire, and earlier this month a man living in a homeless encampment in Rockland County was murdered. Fatal attacks are not the only type of crime homeless individuals face, and a homeless man known only as John said at Lancman’s press conference that the city’s homeless continually face being the victims of heinous acts.

“Several times I’ve been set on fire,” John said. “Police never seemed very bothered about it. When you’re assaulted, the police just don’t want to be bothered by it. Homeless people are people. They’re not garbage. You have to realize that.”

According to the Coalition for the Homeless, there are more than 36,000 homeless people sleeping in city shelters, including more than 15,000 children. Thousands more sleep on the streets.

“These are folks who are extremely vulnerable to violence,” said Patrick Marquee, a senior policy analyst for the Coalition for the Homeless. “Contrary to negative stereotypes of homeless people, they are far more likely to be victims of violence than to commit violence.”

Brian Levin, who contributed to the National Coalition for the Homeless report and runs the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, said, “The homeless are probably the most victimized subgroup in American society.”

“One-third to two-thirds of homeless people have been victimized violently within the last year,” Levin said.

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at agustafson@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 174.

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