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. Bill O’Neill, right, says attacks on vulnerable loners — those stepped over or easily forgotten — are still going on. Few notice, he said.
O’Neill, D-Albuquerque, hopes to change that with a bill that would add homeless people to the state Hate Crimes Act. The state Senate could vote on the bill as soon as Monday.
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. “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 Arian gangsters 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.
The FBI says in 2011 New Mexico had 28 recorded hate crimes. Ten involved bias against race, nine were because of sexual orientation, six ethnicity and three for religion.
Homeless people, though not showing up in that statistical breakdown, remain targets, O'Neill said.
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,” he said.
O'Neill's bill to add homelessness to the hate crimes law is Senate Bill 124.