Sunday, August 23, 2009

State ranks near top in attacks on homeless in nation

State ranks near top in attacks on homeless in nation

Published: Friday, Aug. 21, 2009 - 12:00 am | Page 12A

Levin said some perpetrators attack the homeless because they think they are "protecting turf," and are somehow convinced they are cleaning up a neighborhood or a city.

Still others, he said, are hate-mongers whose targeted victims are interchangeable – blacks, Jews, the homeless, gays and lesbians, or some combination.

In the Sacramento case, 34-year-old William Lee Johnson was arrested in May 2008 after being accused of attacking a transgender couple beneath an overpass, demanding money and calling them "derogatory names" about their sexual orientation, according to court records. The charge of attempted robbery was later dismissed as part of a plea bargain involving other cases against him; he was sentenced to state prison.

Levin has been a strong proponent of expanding local, state and federal hate-crime laws to include attacks on the homeless. Opponents have argued that homelessness can be changed, and its inclusion in hate laws might dilute protection for others.

"The homeless don't have the political and economic infrastructure that other groups have," Levin said. " … The fact is, violent prejudice is hitting these people."

This year, Maryland will become the first state to add homeless status to its hate-crime law. California has repeatedly attempted the same.

In 1994, then-Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed a bill that would have extended the list of hate crimes to include attacks against the homeless and immigrants.

A 2007 bill by Sacramento state Sen. Darrell Steinberg would have made attacks on homeless people a hate crime – adding to the existing criteria of disability, gender, nationality and race. The bill never made it to a vote amid concerns over prison crowding.

Earlier this year, Los Angeles County supervisors recommended that officials start tracking and reporting violence against homeless people as hate crimes.

Levin and Stoops believe the statistics don't begin to capture the magnitude of the problem in California or the nation, since many homeless people are afraid or reluctant to report their assaults to police. Or they simply cannot.

"There's no 911 when you're outside camping," said Joan Burke, director of advocacy at Loaves & Fishes.

At the Loaves & Fishes complex north of downtown, the new director of the Clean and Sober recovery program was once a victim of a violent attack.

Robert Johnston, 51, was attacked by two men some 16 years ago. He was stabbed five times while he lived on the streets of downtown Sacramento. Johnston said he was left bleeding near the light-rail stop in Alkali Flat.

He said a lone police car rolled up beside him in the early morning hours as he lay in a gutter. The driver told him he'd be fine and moved on, Johnston said, explaining that he later awoke in the hospital.

Johnston, who's been in recovery for 14 years, says he now believes it was not a police car but a "guardian angel" that had saved him. But he knows well the realities for the homeless.

Outside Johnston's office, the names of the dead who once ate and congregated here are etched into a fountain in Friendship Park.

Staff member Jim Peth knows their stories: Elliott Dawkins, beaten to death with a baseball bat. "And Ken Massie, he's somewhere up here," said Peth, scouring the stone. "He was shot to death."

"They live hard lives," he said, "and they die hard deaths."

Call The Bee's Marjie Lundstrom, (916) 321-1055.



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Peter S. Lopez ~aka: Peta

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