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Maine Governor Signs Homeless-Protection Bill

April 07, 2006|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

BOSTON — The governor of Maine signed legislation Thursday to stiffen the penalty for those convicted of attacking homeless people.

The measure, said to be the first law of its kind in the country, allows judges to add more incarceration time in such crimes. It comes amid a recent nationwide increase in violence against the homeless.

"Maine is leading the nation in protecting homeless people," Democratic Gov. John E. Baldacci said in the capital of Augusta. "This legislation sends a message that some of Maine's most vulnerable citizens are not preyed upon simply because they don't have a roof over their heads."

Michael Stoops of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington called the legislation "an important and symbolic statement."

Stoops added that similar efforts were pending in Massachusetts and Florida. A comparable bill in Maryland recently was defeated by a single vote, he said.

Violent attacks captured on videotape in Florida and San Francisco in recent months have added to the impetus to provide protection for the homeless, Stoops said.

In Fort Lauderdale on Jan. 12, Stoops said, a teenager clubbed a homeless person with a baseball bat.

Last month, three young men in San Francisco were videotaped as they beat and kicked a homeless person at a downtown bus stop.

"We have been documenting this issue since 1999," Stoops said. In the seven years his agency has tracked crimes against the homeless, he said, 169 people have been killed; most of the assailants have been teenagers or young adults.

But Daryl Fort, director of community development for Baldacci, said Thursday that many crimes went unreported because homeless people did not believe authorities would respond.

"They often fly under the radar because the homeless population doesn't feel that the community at large cares about this," he said. "The Maine bill does and should send the message that because a person is homeless, our culture does not give other folks the license to do as they will and treat them in criminal ways."

Fort said there had been no recent cases of violence against the homeless reported in Maine.

Steve Berg, a vice president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness in Washington, called the Maine legislation an important precedent.

"It is a clear condemnation by society of this kind of behavior," Berg said.

Nationally, about 3 million people annually will experience homelessness, Berg said.

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