WASHINGTON; AND SAN BERNARDINO, CALIF. — Across the nation, America's homeless are under attack – literally. They are hunted down during youthful rites of passage by roving packs of males armed with prejudice and tools of torture.
The number of violent incidents against our country's most vulnerable members has risen dramatically this year, with 16 murders in the first nine months so far. One homeless man was set ablaze in his wheelchair in Spokane, Wash.; another man was beaten with baseball bats in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; a homeless woman was drowned by two young men who rolled her into Tennessee's Cumberland River while she slept.
The hate behind this brutality is not fostered in rural Klan rallies or overseas terrorist camps, but in high school locker rooms and suburban living rooms. While homeless people have often been stereotyped as worthless, depraved, and disposable, prejudice now has a potent new ally: "bum rushing" videos.
This twisted fad has inspired some youths to kill for the "fun" of emulating what they see on a video screen. One group of teens inspired by these videos murdered Michael Roberts, a frail homeless man who succumbed after being relentlessly pummeled by nail-studded two-by-fours and a log in Holly Hill, Fla. Teens buy and trade hundreds of thousands of these videos, making their producers rich. They also film their own assaults, broadcasting them online.
In the first nine months of 2006, 36 of 58 known homeless attackers were teens ages 14 to 19. Such violence seems to be correlated with the rise of bum videos. The number of reported incidents in 2003 nearly doubled, jumping from 36 reported attacks in 2002 to 70 in 2003. The number of nonlethal attacks reached 77 through the end of this September.
In Calgary, Alberta, youths filmed themselves beating and urinating on a homeless man, and screaming out "bum fights!" In Los Angeles, a youth admitted that he, too, was inspired to kill a homeless man with an aluminum baseball bat after viewing a video.
Perhaps most disturbing is not the media's influence on violence and prejudice, but the nation's almost casual acceptance of this violence and the images that derive from it.
If any other minority group reported hate- crime homicide numbers this high there would be a national outcry for justice. A comparison by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, and the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH), found that from 1999 to 2005 there were 167 homeless homicides by domiciled attackers. The number of these killings is more than double the number of all other officially tabulated hate- crime homicides combined. The glaring disparity underscores the case for action. But how do we act?
We need to enhance data collection by law enforcement and improve outreach to the homeless community. Homelessness must be added to vulnerable-victim laws and hate-crime legislation.
Officials should work to raise community awareness so neighbors can help eradicate homelessness altogether, not just remove it from their own line of vision. Community education efforts should model the NCH's Faces of Homelessness Speakers' Bureau. The Bureau is made up of of current and former homeless people who give talks to break stereotypes. This year, this panel has made more than 300 appearances, speaking to more than 17,000 people, mostly youths.
Their work is leading the way to stop the dehumanization of those without homes. Without further effort, violence against the homeless will continue. The burden falls on all our shoulders to end homelessness. Until the day when all Americans are housed, the least we can do is ensure their safety.
• Michael Stoops is acting executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington. Brian Levin is director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.