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L.A. County seeks to classify violence against the homeless as hate crimes

With their numbers increasing, they are easy targets, supervisors say. Several homeless people were killed in high-profile incidents in the last year.

March 25, 2009|Molly Hennessy-Fiske

During the last year, the homeless in Los Angeles County have been set on fire, stabbed, shot and beaten with baseball bats in attacks. Advocates for the homeless say the incidents have become more violent but until now no one has tracked such crimes countywide.

Los Angeles County supervisors on Tuesday unanimously recommended that sheriff's deputies, prosecutors and the county Human Relations Commission start tracking and reporting attacks on the homeless as hate crimes. The vote came as the economy worsens and the number of homeless in the county increases -- with some shelters seeing four times as many people seeking help this winter.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who sponsored the proposal with Supervisor Don Knabe, said he was concerned about "an emerging pattern of homeless individuals being an easy target of violence in our community."

Advocates for the homeless called the collection of such data a first step in changing policy and laws. They cite several high-profile incidents in the last year as cause for alarm:

* The March 9 stabbing of a 66-year-old homeless man in Lincoln Heights.

* The Oct. 9 burning death of John Robert McGraham in the Mid-Wilshire district.

* The Nov. 3 shooting deaths of five people at a homeless encampment in Long Beach.

* The April 2008 conviction of the Black Widow killers who preyed on homeless Los Angeles men for $2.8 million in life insurance money.

The Rev. Andy Bales, chief executive of downtown's Union Rescue Mission, called the hate crime proposal "long overdue." Bales said he believes the intensity of such crimes has gotten worse.

Last week, Los Angeles police said someone set off fireworks among those sleeping on skid row, and there have been incidents of smoke bombs, paintball and BB-gun attacks in the area.

At the same time, they said they have not seen an increase in assaults on skid row's homeless.

Inside Union Rescue Mission on Tuesday, Richard Pearson, 40, traced a thin scar along his right jawline -- 94 stitches marking where he was attacked with a straight razor near skid row nine days earlier.

Pearson, who said he worked as a chef before becoming homeless, his eyes still red from sleeping face-down on his coat on one of the mission's cots the night before, said the man who attacked him was an acquaintance who is not homeless. He said he and other homeless people -- particularly those who are disabled or mentally ill -- are targets.

"There's a lot of people have hate for the homeless, especially those who panhandle downtown," Pearson said

Supervisors requested that the sheriff, district attorney and Los Angeles city attorney all track crimes against the homeless to determine whether attacks are increasing, where they occur and whether they can be prevented.

They also ordered the county Human Relations Commission to track the crimes as part of its annual hate crime report, identifying patterns in location, time, type of crime and motive.

Although the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority counts and surveys the county's homeless, the agency does not track crimes against them, a spokesman said.

The supervisors' move does not change the law, a shift that would be necessary for crimes against the homeless to carry enhanced penalties.

Efforts to add the homeless to the state's hate crime law have failed in the past.

Fifteen years ago then-Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed the Legislature's addition of the homeless to the categories of people who can be considered victims of hate crimes.

More recent efforts by state Sen. Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) have also failed, as has recent federal legislation.

So far only one city and two states have passed such legislation: Seattle, Maine and Alaska, according to the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit National Coalition for the Homeless.

Local legislation is pending in 10 states and Washington, D.C., coalition officials said.

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molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

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