[Hpn] Homeless Advocates Cite Violence Problem

William Charles Tinker wtinker@metrocast.net
Fri, 11 Feb 2005 10:08:40 -0500


http://kennebecjournal.mainetoday.com/news/local/1368899.shtml

Febuary 11, 2005

Homeless advocates cite violence problem

By JOSIE HUANG
Blethen Maine Newspapers


PORTLAND -- A reported rise in violence against homeless people in Maine,
fanned by the popular "Bumfights" videos, is driving a campaign to protect
the group under Maine's hate-crime law.
In a new report, civil rights activists document more than 70 incidents of
physical assault, threats of violence and property damage against homeless
people in Maine since 2001.
Among the 140 homeless people interviewed was one man who said he was
stabbed in the back by two teenagers beneath the Casco Bay Bridge in
Portland. Another man said he was hit on the head with a brick while
sleeping under a stairwell in Portland.
In most of the cases, the perpetrators showed discriminatory behavior by
using derogatory words like "bums" and "trash," according to the report from
the Portland-based Center for Prevention of Hate Violence. Adding homeless
people as a protected class under Maine's Civil Rights Act would allow
prosecutors to level civil charges against perpetrators accused of
discrimination, on top of criminal charges.
Steve Huston, a consumer advocate for the homeless at Portland's Preble
Street center, said violence against the homeless has been increasing in the
last year. "This action would help to reassure homeless people that they are
not invisible."
Huston said many homeless people face the challenges of mental illness and
substance dependency, in addition to the constant fear of being harmed.
Race, religion and disability are among the categories now covered by
Maine's civil rights law. Advocates hope to make Maine the first state to
include homelessness by pushing through new legislation in this session.
Whether such a bill succeeds, however, will depend on factors such as the
level of emphasis placed on Maine Attorney General Steven Rowe's recent
effort to study discrimination against the homeless.
Rowe, after holding public sessions last year and surveying social service
and law enforcement agencies, issued recommendations to counter violence
against homeless people and encourage reporting of crimes. He stayed silent,
however, on the topic of changing the civil rights act.
Observers say a bill for the homeless may have to compete for attention with
legislation to expand the Maine Human Rights Act to protect gay and lesbian
residents from discrimination in housing, employment and public
accommodations.
"It would have a difficult road this session, with sexual orientation being
the focal issue," said Sen. Barry Hobbins, the Saco Democrat who co-chairs
the Legislature's Judiciary Committee.
Although sexual orientation is covered by the Civil Rights Act, it has been
absent from the human rights act since it was established in 1971. While the
question of whether homeless people belong with other protected classes will
be controversial, there is no dispute that people are being attacked simply
for being homeless.
In Portland, police recorded two cases of strangers attacking homeless
people last year, and they say the number of unreported cases is much
higher.
Last year, police investigated several students at Portland High School who
were purported to be in a gang that targeted homeless people, drawing their
inspiration from the "Bumfights" videos and Web site, said Chief Michael
Chitwood.
"Bumfights" features real-life homeless men and women fighting one another
and doing dangerous stunts, such as ripping out teeth and and ramming
themselves into doors.
More than 300,000 copies of the videos have been sold over the Internet.
"We see this as a subculture that not only promotes bias against
homelessness, but absolute degradation, humiliation and violence," said
Stephen Wessler, executive director of the Center for Prevention of Hate
Violence.
Chitwood said that the center's focus on crimes against the homeless
deserves respect, but that changing the civil rights law to include
homelessness clouds the fact that many perpetrators are homeless themselves.
Six incidents of fighting among homeless people were reported last year.
Anecdotally, police have heard more reports of that happening than of
strangers attacking homeless people, Chitwood said.
His solutions fall more in line with the report's other recommendations,
such as training homeless people to report crimes of any kind to police. The
report, drawn from interviews starting in July 2003, also informed
recommendations like public service announcements on homelessness and
educational programs for middle school and high school students.




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