Crimes Against the Homeless: Who’s Keeping Track?

By  | 

Though homelessness is not recognized as a protected class under the Hate Crime Prevention Act (HCPA), the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) has been tracking what it considers to be hate crimes for 15 years now. The coalition has documented more than 1,437 crimes against homeless people committed by housed individuals since 1999.

The FBI defines a hate crime as any “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.” The NCH adamantly believes that targeting individuals solely because they lack a place to call home is just as serious as targeting them because of their ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation.

“There is a very high prevalence of violence against homeless people. They are sought out and targeted because of who they are, and folks are being injured and attacked in large numbers,” Jerry Jones, executive director of the NCH, explained in a phone interview.

In fact, while there have only been 132 homicides in the last 15 years that qualify as hate crimes, the number of homeless related homicides is almost three times as many, totaling 375 deaths since 1999.

These attacks are believed to be motivated by the housed perpetrators’ bias against homeless people. Jones explained that the perpetrators of these crimes “view homeless people as an easy target since they’re living out on the streets,” adding, “they seem to be guided by a twisted rationale that no one will care if they get  hurt.”

With 610,042 people found homeless on any given night across the United States, and with attacks occurring in 47 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia, this is quickly becoming a problem that can no longer be ignored.

Who’s Keeping Track?

One of the most disturbing elements of these crimes is the fact that they are not being recorded. No one aside from the NCH tracks the victims of this particular crime, which is primarily the reason why the Coalition is trying to amend the HCPA to include homelessness as a protected class.

“It’s part of our mission to highlight these [violent] acts,” Jones said of the National Coalition for the Homeless. “It’s an issue that we’ve dedicated a lot of time and effort to, but the government has more resources.”

If homelessness were to become a federally recognized protected class, it would require the FBI to track crimes against the homeless the same way that it tracks crimes against other protected classes. It would also show that the government acknowledges not only that there is a problem, but also the fact that these people are worth protecting.

While the NCH publishes annual reports that provide a vivid account of the crimes committed against the homeless, it does not have the resources that the federal government has at its disposal. A complete and accurate count of these crimes will not be possible until the federal government takes over the data collection process.

This is a problem because until we know the extent of the issue, fixing it is relatively impossible. From the data compiled by the NCH it is clear that homeless people frequently suffer from beatings, rape, murders, and even being lit on fire at the hands of housed perpetrators. But the question remains: is this enough to constitute the creation of a new protected class under the HCPA?

The Violence Against the Homeless Accountability Act

Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson seems to think so, introducing the Violence Against the Homeless Accountability Act (VAHA) last year. In a press release she states that “before we can solve the problem, we must understand the problem,” arguing that such legislation is needed to send the message that crimes against the homeless will not be forgotten or ignored.

Johnson is not alone in this belief either. Several states have taken it upon themselves to individually include homeless people as a protected class under their hate crime statutes. At least 11 states have passed some form of protection for the homeless as of 2012, but until homeless people are protected under federal legislation, the fight is far from over.

The Homeless Accountability Act only has a six percent chance of getting past committee in the House and only a one percent chance of being enacted. This is slightly lower than the average bill, which stems primarily from the fact that it has failed to garner support from Republicans who are opposed to any further expansion of the HCPA.

The Debate

There is a lot of trepidation about expanding the scope of existing hate crime laws as people are fearful that such an expansion will infringe on citizens’ freedom of speech and expression, criminalizing hateful “thoughts” rather than hateful acts (though the HCPA explicitly states it does not limit hateful thoughts or even hateful speech).

Another argument is that since homelessness is not an immutable characteristic like race, it does not warrant the same protection under the HCPA. Others believe that inclusion as a protected class is not necessary because existing laws are strong enough to deal with any discrimination directed toward the homeless.

Though it may be true that homelessness is not an immutable characteristic, the homeless are one of the most vulnerable groups in society, quite literally without a place to call home. They are veterans who served our country, struggling families who have had their homes foreclosed, and fellow citizens who no longer have the means or the mental capacity to support themselves.

They, of all people, deserve extra protection from senseless violence, yet current legislation has proven to be inadequate in protecting them from the violent actions of housed perpetrators. Until the homeless are protected under the federal hate crime statutes, the discriminatory violence they face will only increase and, sadly, continue to be largely ignored.

[The National Coalition for the Homeless’ Annual Report 2013]

Nicole Roberts (@NicoleR5901) a student at American University majoring in Justice, Law, and Society with a minor in Mandarin Chinese. She has a strong interest in law and policymaking, and is active in homeless rights advocacy as well as several other social justice movements. Contact Nicole at

Featured image courtesy of [Sebastian via Flicker]

Nicole Roberts
Nicole Roberts a student at American University majoring in Justice, Law, and Society with a minor in Mandarin Chinese. She has a strong interest in law and policymaking, and is active in homeless rights advocacy as well as several other social justice movements. Contact Nicole at



Send this to friend