Today’s post was written by Christian Brandt, Federal Policy Intern for the Alliance.
Chances are you’ve heard about the recent instances of violence against homeless people. These attacks are part of the often violent reality of life on the street. On Tuesday, July 10, the Congressional Caucus on Homelessness convened to discuss this growing trend of violence against people experiencing homelessness. Among the panelists were Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NCH), Richard Wierzbicki, Broward County Sheriff’s office captain, and David Pirtle, a man who himself was a victim of violence while living on the street. The panel was moderated by Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless.
In the discussion that took place all panelists agreed that the reason such violent incidents have proliferated is the increasingly de-humanizing lens through which the public sees people experiencing homelessness. Evidence of this can be seen in the rash of so-called anti-homeless laws recently passed in Denver and throughout the country, which criminalize homelessness or make being homeless that much more difficult. These laws contribute to the perception that people experiencing homelessness are somehow less deserving of the dignity, rights and freedoms that people with permanent housing enjoy, a perception many of the perpetrators of anti-homeless violence appear to hold.
Between 1999 and 2010, NCH has documented 1,184 acts of violence by housed perpetrators against people experiencing homelessness.
Following a brief video featuring disturbing footage of attacks, which provided those in attendance with a visceral reminder of the trend of rising violence, Wierzbicki discussed his role in the passage of a piece of legislation in Florida that added homelessness to the state hate crimes law. The bill was inspired by a similar act passed in Maryland a year earlier. Then David Pirtle related his experience with several violent encounters during his period of homelessness, and Maria Foscarinis concluded with comments on current legislation being passed.
The panelists also heard remarks from Representatives Judy Biggert, Alcee Hastings, Geoff Davis, and Eddie Johnson, who are to be commended for launching the Congressional Caucus on Homelessness.
The discussion was not all bad news, however. Panelists lauded the recent passage of the Rhode Island Homeless Bill of Rights as a model for legislation granting more security and humanity to the state’s individuals without homes. Foscarinis emphasized, though, that these kinds of bills will not solve the problem of homelessness. Access to affordable housing, she reminded the panelists and audience, is the best way to help individuals exit homelessness.
The next critical step involves a discussion about how to end homelessness, and how legislation can ensure that individuals experiencing homelessness gain access to the services they so desperately need.