Senator-elect wants attacks on homeless added to the law
In 1974, long before most people had heard of hate crimes, New Mexico was stained by them.
Three white kids from Farmington sought out, tortured and killed three Navajo men. Their punishment was assignment to reform school.
State Sen.-elect Bill O’Neill says attacks on vulnerable loners — those stepped over or easily forgotten — are still going on. Few notice, he said.
So O’Neill, D-Albuquerque, will introduce a bill next month to add homeless people to the state Hate Crimes Act. The proposed law means those who attack homeless people would be subject to harsher sentences if caught and convicted.
“This sends a message to the general public — people need to have dignity,” O’Neill said in an interview. “If we’re going to talk about hate crimes, let’s talk about the homeless.”
For O’Neill, the bill is rooted in painful, personal memories.
Years ago, after volunteering at St. Martin’s Hospitality Center in Albuquerque, O’Neill said he befriended a homeless man who called himself Frank Ellis.
O’Neill would discover that a gang of Arian youth regularly beat up Ellis. An easy target, Ellis was no match for street toughs and he was not about to report the assaults to police.
Ellis died of exposure to the cold in 1998. The Arian gang that made a difficult life worse was never arrested.
Such stories are not isolated, nor are they unique to New Mexico.
Since October 2009, six states have approved laws making assaults on homeless people hate crimes. Maryland was the first to do so.
O’Neill’s bill is similar in concept to the laws on the books elsewhere.
Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, D.C., said he would prefer a national law, but the reality is one is not going to be enacted anytime soon.
“Given that there isn’t movement in Congress, our approach is to show movement at the state level,” Donovan said.
Hate crimes are based in planning attacks on people because of bias. Donovan said American popular culture helps spreads prejudice against homeless people.
He cited a video game in which players hunt “bums.” A report by his agency found that four films entitled “Bumfights” sold more than 7 million copies.
“Reports from both ABC and CBS’s ‘60 Minutes’ identified the ‘Bumfights’ videos as possible causes for the increased amount of attacks on homeless individuals,” according to a report compiled by the National Coalition for the Homeless.
Donovan said his agency, though lacking resources and expertise, tries to track attacks on homeless people. Its statistical data is not complete, but it shows a pattern.
Donovan said “a reasonable guess” from the research is that there are more attacks on homeless people than on all other groups combined. Biases against people because of ethnicity and sexual preference typically are behind other hate crimes, he said.
The National Coalition for the Homeless charted known cases of hate crimes between 1999 and 2010. It listed eight attacks in New Mexico.
Texas had 64 and Colorado 47. The greatest number of attacks on the homeless were in California and Florida, where cases totaled 213 and 177.
Florida is one of the states that now treats assaults on the homeless as hate crimes. Even so, nearly a year went by before anyone was charged with a hate crime against a homeless person in Florida.
A secluded culture, a general lack of public attention and unwillingness by homeless people to report crimes to police are some of the reasons.
O’Neill’s bill would not make cases of homeless people attacking other homeless people a hate crime. Such violence is a whole other category, he said.
His bill received a near unanimous endorsement from the Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee. One member, retiring state Sen. Rod Adair, R-Roswell, abstained from voting on it.
The next step will be introduction of the bill during the 60-day legislative session starting in January.
Most people never knew Frank Ellis. But with this measure, O’Neill hopes that he and other homeless people victimized by criminals will not be forgotten.