Bill Passed to Protect Homeless

By Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 7, 2007

The Senate approved a bill yesterday that would make Maryland the second state to add homeless people to the groups protected under hate crimes laws.

The legislation was approved 38 to 9 after a brief but pointed debate over whether ample evidence existed that homeless people are being targeted for crimes. Some critics also said the measure watered down the original hate crimes law by adding another group.

Under current law, violators are subject to additional penalties if their crime is motivated by another person's race, color, religious beliefs, sexual orientation or national origin.

Sen. Alex X. Mooney (R-Frederick) said he thought homeless people should be included under the law, based on numerous attacks reported across the country. Maine passed a similar measure last year.

The bill goes to the House of Delegates for approval.

"Maryland has made it clear they are going to have the policy of hate crimes [laws]. Going right along with that, it's only fair to include vulnerable groups in our society," Mooney said.

Nationally, attacks on homeless people have been on the rise. The National Coalition for the Homeless recorded 142 incidents last year, up from 86 in 2005 and the most since the survey began in 1999. The group has recorded two attacks in Maryland in the past three years; one resulted in a death.

Critics of the bill said the legislation was not needed.

"There's a cynical side to this bill," said Sen. E.J. Pipkin (R-Queen Anne's), who voted against it. "All crimes are hateful. . . . I just think we could be undermining the original intent of the hate crimes law."

He predicted that next year the General Assembly would consider a bill to add the disabled. The Senate rejected an amendment to this year's bill to include the disabled because it was filed late.

Pipkin said he is not against the idea behind hate crimes laws, but "why are crimes against me less hateful?"

Sen. Lisa A. Gladden (D-Baltimore) said Mooney offered compelling evidence during the bill hearing to warrant passage.

Gladden said she was offended last year when the Senate debated a bill to expand the law to include crimes based on the sexual orientation of the victim and Mooney, an outspoken conservative, offered several amendments to include other groups of people, including homeless people. She and several colleagues argued that Mooney was attempting to kill the bill, which eventually passed.

Gladden said she was convinced after hearing testimony from homeless advocates and watching a video called "Bumfights," in which homeless people are attacked or fight each other for sport.

"The homeless need to be a protected class," Gladden said. "We should get to a point in America where we don't need hate crimes [laws], but we're not there yet."

There have been 614 violent acts against the homeless nationally in the past eight years, including 189 deaths, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Jessica Schuler, a policy analyst at the organization, said the 65 percent increase from 2005 to 2006 was the largest one-year jump in attacks the group has recorded.

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