Lawmaker to seek hate crime status for attacks on homeless
Incidents are frequent, often unreported
David Ballenger had trouble setting any kind of course for his life. He worked odd jobs, did a stint in the Army, and eventually ended up living under a freeway overpass. But ten years after his death, he is not forgotten.
On Aug. 9, 1999, Ballenger was brutally murdered near Green Lake under the freeway overpass where he camped. Earlier that day, he and several people were gathered under the Ravenna Boulevard overpass when a teenage boy in the group began bad-mouthing Ballenger for being homeless.
Ballenger walked away, but Jay Stewart and two of his friends—Shelton Musgrave and Michael Caffee—later returned to the camp and attacked the 46-year-old, beating, kicking and choking him before stabbing him 18 times. After the murder, according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the 17-year-old Stewart bragged that “there’s one less bum on the face of the earth.”
Two of the three convicted killers are already out of prison, but the crime they committed is not isolated: In 1999, the murder was one of 60 attacks on homeless people across the United States, 12 of them lethal. Since then, the attacks have increased, reaching 160 in 2007 and dropping to 106 last year, when 27 were lethal. Most are perpetrated by young men like Stewart, Musgrave and Caffee, either because they have little fear of reprisal or find it a thrill.
The data comes from the National Coalition for the Homeless, which issues a report each year totaling the grim statistics. In its latest report, released in August, the coalition urged state and local legislators to make attacks on the homeless a category of hate crimes similar to attacks based on race, religion or sexual orientation—a call that a newly elected state legislator from North Seattle, Rep. Scott White, D-46th, has decided to answer.
Before the Legislature convenes in January, White plans to introduce a bill that would amend the state’s current malicious harassment law to include homeless persons. The change would add up to five years in prison and an additional fine of up to $10,000 for those convicted of injuring a homeless person, damaging his or her belongings or threatening harm.
Seattle passed a similar city law in 2007. White’s bill would cover the whole state and, while it can’t prevent attacks, it would send a message, he says, that people shouldn’t be left outside with no walls to protect them.
While he was reading this year’s statistics on homeless attacks, White says, he remembered David Ballenger and what had happened to him. He had seen Ballenger in the Green Lake and Roosevelt neighborhoods of what is now his legislative district. By all accounts, “he was a likeable, affable guy,” White says. “A lot of the shop owners knew him and were friends with him.”
In the decade since Ballenger’s murder, the National Coalition for the Homeless reports there have been a total of 880 attacks on homeless people across the United States, resulting in 244 deaths. “The numbers just standing alone are unacceptable,” says White, a former King County Council staffer who has worked with United Way. “Then I learned that the number of fatal attacks on homeless people is more than twice that [of assaults] targeting victims because of their perceived race, ethnicity or sexual orientation.”
And many crimes against the homeless go unreported, he says. That means the numbers are likely low—at a time, White says, when homelessness is rising, especially among the working poor.
On any given night, estimates put Washington state’s homeless population at 23,000, but over the course of 2009, White says, it’s estimated that more than 100,000 people will face being homeless. “That is basically the equivalent of Safeco Field and Qwest Field packed,” he says. In the 2007-08 school year, he adds, 19,000 children were listed as homeless at some point.
“We need to pass this legislation because people who are homeless, who are looking for a place to sleep [and] their next meal, they’re having a tough enough time as it is without being harassed by people,” he says.
On Oct. 22, a resident of Tent City 3 was attacked near the camp’s Seward Park location by a group of males. The victim told police they had pushed him down and kicked him, leaving him unconscious and bleeding. This was one of two attacks that sent Tent City 3 residents to the hospital during the encampment’s recent stay in the area.
The office of Sen. Adam Kline, whose 37th District covers South Seattle and the Seward Park area, says he is considering sponsoring a Senate companion bill to White’s, but is not yet committed.
Two bills have been introduced in the U.S. House this year to track crimes against the homeless (HR 3419) and provide housing grants to victims (HR 262). But only Maryland and four local jurisdictions, including Seattle and Washington, D.C., have passed laws making attacks on the homeless a hate crime.
Whether or not his bill passes, White says, he plans to use it as a platform for raising awareness of the broader issue—and the lack of funding directed at efforts to end homelessness—which many people don’t understand. The attacks, he says, are the result of ignorance and lack of education.
“The homeless are comprised of many different faces,” he says. “But what I can guarantee you is that every homeless person is someone’s son or daughter, someone’s brother or friend, and we don’t talk about it, but we are more connected to someone who is or has been homeless than we realize.”
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