C. Surpless

Caffeine and Nicotine
2008-10-22 17:23:13 (UTC)

Violence Against the Homeless: Is It a Hate Crime?

The chapel at Immanuel Presbyterian Church was filled to
capacity last Saturday afternoon, with mourners moving up
to the balcony. Much to the surprise of his family,
hundreds — from infants to senior citizens — came to honor
John Robert McGraham, a homeless man who was brutally
murdered on Oct. 9. McGraham, 55, was doused with gasoline
and set ablaze. Despite efforts of residents and
shopkeepers to extinguish the flames, he died at the scene,
on a sidewalk in front of a boarded up dental office on the
corner of West 3rd and Berendo Street in the Mid-Wilshire
area of Los Angeles. "They targeted him in my mind and
that's the worst kind of person," says his sister Susanne
McGraham-Paisley of the suspects, who remain at large. "I
hope they give them the full scope of the law because that
person went to a gas station, filled up the gas can, drove
to the site, poured gasoline on him and then set him on
fire. That person had so many opportunities to change [his]
mind and ... didn't."

California has the dubious distinction of ranking second,
just behind Florida, in the number of lethal and non-lethal
attacks against homeless people last year. It recorded 22
but, says Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the
National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, the actual
number of attacks is likely even higher because many are
never reported. After a huge increase in 2006 — 65% some of
which is attributed to the video Bumfights where people who
live on the street are pitted against each other — last
year still saw an increase of 13%. Street people, says
Foscarinis, live "outside so they can be attacked by anyone
for any reason. There are a couple of more subtle factors
that are leading to this as well and one of them is that
there are increasingly punitive actions taken by cities
against homeless people. So that also sends a message that
these people are less than human and that attacking them is
ok."

The attacks on homeless street people are particularly
vicious. "They are the most vulnerable people in the
country," says Tony Taylor, a research associate at the
National Coalition for the Homeless. "Over one in 4 attacks
that are reported against the homeless end in murder.
That's huge compared to one-tenth of a percent of other
protected classes," he said, referring to categories of
individuals currently protected under federal Hate Crime
legislation. These typically include bias-motivated
violence and intimidation against individuals based on
their sexual orientation, race or religion. Being homeless
on the street is not one of the existing categories. In
2006, the last year that FBI figures are available for hate
crime fatalities, three individuals in the protected
classes were killed versus 20 homeless individuals.

Hence, there is a movement to get them covered by existing
hate crime legislation. The Coalition and Law Center are
lobbying members of Congress to pass two bills, sponsored
by Texas Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, which would amend two
Hate Crime acts. The first bill, H.R. 2216, introduced in
Congress on May 8, 2007 seeks to amend the Hate Crime
Statistics Act to include crimes against the homeless. This
would require the FBI to collect data on crimes against the
homeless — data sorely needed by homeless advocates — in
order to determine if they are hate-motivated attacks. The
second bill, H.R. 2217, introduced on the same date, seeks
to include the homeless in the list of classes protected
under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of
1994. Both bills have been referred to the House
Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security.

Foscarinis says the legislation proposed seeks to increase
the punishment for hate crimes against the homeless by
three offense levels. "At the same time we are lobbying for
real solutions, which are housing and social services for
homeless people, we have to make sure their lives and
dignity are respected," says Foscarinis. "The point of hate
crime legislation to act as a deterrent. It becomes a more
serious crime when it's considered a hate crime and there
is a harsher sentence that's imposed. We want to send a
message that homeless people's lives are just as valuable
as anyone else's life."

That has certainly been the unintended consequence of
McGraham's murder. It has stirred outrage in the wider Los
Angeles community. The Los Angeles City Council is offering
a $75,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and
conviction of the individuals responsible for the crime.
But it is the people who actually saw him on the streets
through 20 years who have been most affected by his violent
end. Poignant notes have been left at a shrine erected at
the site of his murder. "You didn't know me but I saw you
on my frequent drives... you touched me so deeply...I am so
sorry such cruelty took your life," read one letter.
Another simply stated, "The neighborhood will not be the
same without you." His sister Susanne was touched. "So many
times when my family would go to see John, our hearts would
be filled with so much sadness. My children would feel sad
that we were leaving him all alone. I'm very grateful to
hear that he was not alone, that his life had an effect on
so many people in the neighborhood."

McGraham's death will be prosecuted as first-degree murder,
a capital offense, according to Los Angeles Police Deputy
Chief Charlie Beck. Even as she mourned, Susanne McGraham-
Paisley said, "the people who did this to him did the cause
of understanding homelessness a great service. Because the
way in which they killed him and the way in which he died
and the community's response has clearly shown that people
do have an interest in someone like our brother."


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