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Hastings, Other Lawmakers Rally Congress To Combat Homeless Violence

WASHINGTON (CBSMiami) – They will urinate on you. They will throw rocks at you while you sleep. They will even chew off your face.

These actual cases of violence against the homeless, according to Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar, indicate "a sinister trend happening across America."

Rep. Hastings recently joined other lawmakers in rallying for new measures to help end the trend.

The Sun-Sentinel reports the Congressional Homeless Caucus on Tuesday renewed its call for Congress to pass legislation that would require federal authorities to better track violent acts against the homeless.

Few crimes against the homeless received as much attention as May's grisly attack in Miami by Rudy Eugene on 65-year-old Ronald Poppo. Eugene, 31, was shot to death by a Miami police officer when he found him chewing Poppo's face on a sidewalk on the MacArthur Causeway. Poppo remains hospitalized.

The homeless victim of the first two crimes listed at the beginning of this article told a congressional panel about his experiences.

Facing mental-health problems and living day-to-day on the streets of New York City and Washington D.C., Pirtle told Congress that those mental problems made him less likely to seek help.

Help is what Rep. Hastings and other lawmakers say they need.

With more homeless people on the streets as a result of the foreclosure crisis, high unemployment and stagnant wages, activists for the homeless told the congressional panel that these trends might expose more people to violence.

These activists say local and federal authorities who address homelessness issues need to have a better sense of what resources are necessary to counter such violence.

Progress is being made in Florida in combating violence against the homeless.

The caucus praised a 2010 Florida law pushed by the Broward Sheriff's Office after three teens went on a violent spree against three homeless men in downtown Fort Lauderdale. It left Jacques Pierre and Raymond Perez severely beaten and Norris Gaynor dead, and prompted the inclusion of homeless people in the state's hate-crime laws.

Broward Sheriff's officers are "very proud" that Florida became the second state to include the homeless in such laws, BSO Captain Rick Wierzbicki told the caucus. Since then, they've talked to authorities in Colorado and other states interested in similar laws.

"This is something we knew we needed to do," he said. "Law enforcement got behind it. We weren't going to be stopped."

The National Coalition for the Homeless isn't pursuing changes that would categorize crimes against homeless people as federal hate crimes. But it does want Congress to pass laws that would require local law enforcement to better track crimes against the homeless, said Neil Donovan, executive director of the coalition.

Some laws addressing homelessness might inadvertently contribute to conditions that could escalate violence against homeless people, some advocates say.

Criminalizing some aspects of homelessness — such as outlawing sleeping in public places or panhandling — makes it a crime "simply to exist" for many of the homeless, said Maria Foscarinis, founder and executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. The sense that the homeless aren't fully human contributes to a climate that leads to violence, she said. She praised a Rhode Island initiative that prohibits discrimination against people who lack a place to live.

"We can think of homelessness itself as a form of violence," she said. "Simply being without a place to live in a country that has the resources, has the capability of housing everybody, is a form of violence in my view."

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