By: Joe Nelson
April 29, 2019 —
A bill that would make it a hate crime to attack a homeless person in California has been shelved for this legislative session, but the South Bay lawmaker who authored the measure vows not to let it die.
Assembly Bill 1422, by Carson-area Assemblyman Mike Gipson, stalled in the lower house’s Public Safety Committee last week, but Gipson said he would reintroduce it next year because those experiencing homelessness are vulnerable and “deserve protection.”
“We’re going to come up with a best strategy and we’re going to move it forward,” Gipson said in a phone interview. “We’re not going to give up the fight to raise our voice on this issue. (The homeless) should be a protected class. Homeless people deserve protection, and we need to give it to them.”
Under California law, a hate crime is defined as a criminal act committed against someone because of his or her actual or perceived characteristics, including race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation or disabilities. A hate crime can be charged as a stand-alone crime or as an enhancement that can add more time on to a defendant’s sentence.
Opponents of Gipson’s bill, including the California Public Defenders Association and the Anti-Defamation League, acknowledge the homeless are extremely vulnerable to violent attacks and need more protection, but say it would be more appropriate to add the homeless to California’s vulnerable victim statute, which now includes the elderly, children and the disabled.
Opponents also argue that hate crime laws are tailored after the immutable, or core, personal characteristics of victims — race or ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation.
“Homelessness, by contrast, is a status and a challenge that society needs to solve. Notably, unlike the existing categories, it is not a core or immutable personal trait, and an individual’s homelessness status should indeed be changed,” said Nancy J. Appel, the Anti-Defamation League’s California legislative director, in a letter to the Public Safety Committee. “As such, crimes against homeless individuals are not what hate crime laws were designed to address.”
Margo George and Jennifer Friedman, co-chairs of the California Public Defenders Association, said in a letter to the Public Safety Committee that AB 1422 would not protect the homeless or act as a deterrent.
“AB 1422 will not make homeless people who are afraid of the police who destroy their encampments and belongings and write tickets or arrest the homeless for loitering, drinking in public and other nuisance infractions or misdemeanors, contact those same officers for assistance when they are attacked,” George and Friedman said in their letter.
Brian Levin, a criminal law professor at Cal State San Bernardino and a hate crimes expert, is in Gipson’s corner, and spoke in favor of his proposed legislation during last Tuesday’s hearing.
“Every group that is targeted in a hate crime has some vulnerability, but the homeless have a heightened vulnerability,” Levin said.
In a letter to Gipson dated April 18, Levin said the homeless face a rate of victimization that far exceeds that of other groups. In the past two decades, a “clear and disturbing pattern has emerged that show the homeless population face an additional risk of violence.”
Levin also said in his letter that there has been a “disturbing prevalence of severe overkill” involving homeless victims who have suffered fatal beatings, shootings, drownings and stabbings. One homeless man was burned alive.
On Sept. 22, 2016, Steven Loia, then 54, viciously attacked 60-year-old Laverne Davis in the parking lot of a 99 Cents Only Store in Corona, punching her, stabbing her, then beating her to death with a baseball bat. Several people witnessed the fatal assault on Davis, a homeless woman who slept on a bus bench near where she was killed.
Loia was convicted of the crime in July 2017.
The homeless, Levin said, also have been exploited and plied with alcohol to engage in staged fights called “Bum Fights” that sold on DVD and aired on YouTube. Terms such as “Bum Hunting” have been coined by hate groups targeting the homeless, he said.
In their letter to the Assembly Public Safety Committee, George and Friedman of the CPDA said AB 1422 will “not be a deterrent to drunk fraternity kids or hateful extremists who are driven by a political ideology that despises the less fortunate.”
“In the first case, kids’ brains are not fully developed and alcohol dissolves whatever social inhibitions might have prevented the behavior,” they said. “In the latter case, such people believe in the righteousness of their cause, and arrest and prosecution with the resulting publicity furthers their goals.”
Gipson ticked off other incidents he considered hate crimes against the homeless, including a brutal attack last May in San Francisco in which a homeless man who lay sleeping on the sidewalk was kicked twice in the head by a passer-by wearing a dark suit and beanie. The suspect in that attack, Samuel Youmtoub, has also been implicated in the death of another homeless man in San Francisco’s Chinatown in April 2018.
Gipson also noted a trio of incidents in Los Angeles’ financial district last September in which three homeless men were viciously beaten with a baseball bat. Two of the men died. Police said robbery may have been the motive behind those attacks, and that the bow-legged attacker, caught on video, may be a homeless man himself.
Also in September, a homeless man and woman sleeping in a park in Mission Hills were doused with battery acid and severely injured.
Homelessness on the rise
Homelessness across Southern California has steadily increased in recent years, vexing government officials searching for solutions to reduce the number of people living on the streets.
In San Bernardino County, a tally of the homeless population jumped 23% since 2018, with roughly 500 more people living on the streets, according to Point-in-Time homeless count datareleased Wednesday, April 24. The report revealed a 71% increase in homeless people 55 and older, from 246 in 2018 to 422 counted in January, and a 33% increase in the number of unsheltered homeless individuals.
In Riverside County, homelessness increased by 22% since 2018, according to Point-in-Time homeless count data released Friday, April 26. Orange County officials this week reported a 43% increase in homelessness.
Increasing violence against the homeless has paralleled the rising number of people living on the streets.
A December 2018 survey of bias-motivated violence against homeless people by the National Coalition for the Homeless detailed 48 lethal attacks and 64 nonlethal attacks on homeless people that occurred in 2016 and 2017 across the U.S. While the report noted that FBI data suggests hate crimes against the homeless has decreased since the 2016 elections, it also stated that “bias-motivated violence against homeless persons continues to be highly prevalent in our communities.”
The often sadistic, brutal and predatory nature of crimes against the homeless is a clear indicator that homeless status should be included among the characteristics that defines a person as a target for a hate crime, Gipson said.
Those who prey on the homeless do it “because they are vulnerable,” he said. “They are preyed upon in this manner and a lot of it ends in death.”