A new protective measure for Seattle’s streets might be on its way. In response to the growing number of violent attacks on homeless individuals nationally, the Seattle Human Rights Commission is looking to revise the city’s current malicious harassment ordinance to include the homeless as a protected population.
If the commission succeeds, any individual who has allegedly targeted someone who is homeless would be charged with malicious harassment as an additional, separate crime.
The ordinance defines malicious harassment as physical injury, property damage, or threats for reasonable fear of harm against a target group of people. It is a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail or a $5,000 fine.
“There is a tremendous danger for the homeless in terms of physical attack and discrimination,” says Alison Eisenger, of the Seattle-King County Coalition for the Homeless. “Since homeless [people] are an already vulnerable population, they are at a higher risk.”
A priority of the Homeless Task Force, a specialized subcommittee of the Seattle Human Rights Commission, the legislation is in response to the growing number of documented attacks on homeless individuals across the nation. The malicious harassment ordinance would be a publicly sanctioned statement that sends the message, say its backers, that targeting people simply because of their economic status is a criminal act.
City Attorney Tom Carr says that the primary effect would be symbolic. “Malicious harassment as a crime is very hard to prove in general, and making the homeless a protected class under this ordinance would be more of a protective gesture.”
The National Coalition for the Homeless ranked Seattle the seventh deadliest city to be homeless in from 1999 to 2002. Last year, there was one documented murder of a homeless individual in Washington state — and no clear indication that it was motivated by bias. While it’s difficult to gauge the prevalence of such crimes, “The attacks are far more frequent than statistics would show, because many incidents don’t go reported,” says Jay Wellington, chair of Seattle’s Homeless Task Force.
“The homeless population has been fairly dehumanized…. They become targeted simply because they’re available,” says Wellington. “The things people do [when attacking the homeless] would show that homeless individuals are not seen as humans.”
One of the alarming trends Wellington points to as an example of this are several media accounts of youth videotaping themselves attacking homeless individuals. “We hope to create a climate among young people that this is not acceptable behavior,” he says.
Eisenger also stresses that effective public education is a key element in reducing the number of attacks. Part of changing the malicious harassment ordinance will include an effort to develop educational campaigns in schools. The Homeless Task Force is hoping that they will be able to get the malicious harassment ordinance altered by late summer to implement educational curricula in the upcoming school year.
The task force held a public meeting May 8 to gather information from the community about the issue. Letters of endorsement have also come in from organizations such as SHARE/WHEEL, which organizes Tent City, and ROOTS, a University District youth shelter. The proposal will be presented to Councilmember Nick Licata at a meeting of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee on June 19.
If the proposal is approved, it will be another step toward making Seattle less dangerous for those who live here, says Wellington: “The homeless should be treated with respect, and feel safe in their city of residence.”
By LAURA PEACH, Contributing Writer