WASHINGTON - The US Senate was urged Wednesday to require that violent attacks against homeless people be tracked and formally reported as hate crimes, which could lead to stiffer penalties for the perpetrators.
Senator Ben Cardin said he was "shocked and horrified" by reports of 43 homeless people killed in 2009 alone, compared to 27 murders a year earlier.
The victims were specifically targeted by their attackers, including cases in which people were strangled, beaten to death with bats or set on fire, experts and family members of the deceased told a Senate judiciary subcommittee hearing.
Cardin urged support for his "Hate Crimes Against the Homeless Statistics Act" that he introduced a year ago that would allow authorities to track homeless attacks along with other hate crime categories such as race, religion and sexuality.
"The homeless, just because they're homeless, are being victimized and that has to stop in America," said Cardin, who chaired the hearing.
Acts designated as hate crimes lead to harsher punishments for those convicted. For example, a second-degree felony would become a first-degree felony, with a maximum sentence bumped from 15 to 30 years in prison.
In many cases of the 117 "hate attacks" against those living on the streets or in shelters in 2009, including the 43 murders, violent acts against the homeless "was almost a sport" for attackers who see their victims as "unhuman," Florida police officer Richard Wierzbicki testified at the hearing.
Simone Manning-Moon, whose older brother Norris Gaynor was beaten to death by three teenagers with baseball bats and a rake handle, told the hearing that he was targeted "because he was homeless."
US Navy veteran Gaynor was sleeping on a bench in Fort Lauderdale County in January 2006 when he was brutally attacked, in an assault caught on security cameras and played on the national media.
The trio had embarked on a beating spree that night that included savage attacks on two other homeless men.
Speaking haltingly and through tears, Manning-Moon told senators that if crimes against the homeless were tracked like other "hate attacks," others could be saved from a similar fate.
"He was murdered because people resented the homeless and thought that they could continue to prey on the homeless and get away with it," she said.
Homeless people have become a "socially acceptable target of aggression," noted Brian Levin, advisor to the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) and director of the California-based Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.
In the 10-year period between 1999 and 2009, Levin said, instances of fatal attacks against homeless people in the United States stood at 288 according to NCH data - almost triple the 103 murders listed by the FBI as hate crimes during the same period.
"Access to objective, official data is crucial for our society to assess the scope of criminality, implement policies and allocate resources" to protect people who are living homeless, Levin said.
According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH), there are about 124,000 chronically homeless people on streets or in shelters on any given night in the United States.
Cardin also noted at the hearing Wednesday that in 2009 some 1.5 million people spent at least one night homeless.
Many of them have complex medical problems, serious mental illness like schizophrenia, or alcohol or drug addiction, said the NAEH.
The hearing also found, however, that the current largest growing category among the homeless were families with children, mainly due to rising foreclosures since the 2008 financial crisis that has seen a larger number of people losing their homes.