Lowenthal’s Homeless Rights Bill Report

by journojames on February 15, 2012

Originally published Apr. 6, 2011

LONG BEACH, CA – As California becomes the national trendsetter for violence against its homeless, one of the state’s legislative committees approved a bill on Tuesday, March 22 that gives homeless people hate-crime protection when suing an attacker in civil court.

Assemblywoman (D) Bonnie Lowenthal, Photo courtesy of Vanity Fair

The California State Assembly Judiciary Committee approved Long Beach Democratic Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal’s homeless rights bill, AB 312. It must now go to the Assembly Appropriations Committee for a hearing before it goes to the full Assembly for approval.

“California has the highest rate of violence against homeless people in the entire country,” said Lauren Robinson, Lowenthal’s legislative aide. “Assemblywoman Lowenthal is just responding to her concerned constituents in Long Beach who see this as a growing trend and problem.”

Currently, California is ranked no. 1 in the nation in violence against people who live on the streets, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. Hate crime laws in California also fail to protect homeless people who are attacked for simply being homeless.

Robinson said that one of the important points of AB 312 was the fact that it wouldn’t require funding because it’s intended to enforce exclusively by lawsuit, and that it wouldn’t add any strain to budget-strapped police departments or overcrowded prisons. She said that a number of non-profit organizations, like the National Coalition for the Homeless, would be able to help homeless victims of violence if they decided to pursue lawsuits.

There are over 3,900 homeless people living on the streets of Long Beach, according to the latest statistics offered by Long Beach’s Department of Health and Human Services. And many of them have encountered hostility. Long Beach Connections, a group of advocates for the homeless, surveyed 350 homeless people in the downtown area of Long Beach in 2009 and found that 40 percent of them had dealt with some kind of violence while living on the streets. A horrific incident in early November 2008 was a grim reminder of the problem as five homeless people were found shot to death in a makeshift homeless encampment near the 405 Freeway in Long Beach.

Homeless Street, Photo courtesy of Povertyinsights

“We had a case where a homeless man was assaulted while he was sleeping not too long ago,” said Susan Price, manager of the Homeless Services Division for the City of Long Beach. “But, it’s really hard to keep track and say how many homeless are actual victims of violent hate crimes just because they happen to be out on the streets.”

Marshall Wong, who coordinates anti-hate crime programs for the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission, agreed with Price. His organization reports and publishes information on hate crimes in L.A. County.

“It’s really tough to say that we have official records of people attacking the homeless just because of their homeless situation,” said Wong. “But we do have anecdotal reports from across the country of white supremacists using homeless people when they’re being initiated or people creating demeaning bum-fight videos solely for the purpose of entertainment and profit.”

Wong described bum-fight videos as videos shot by amateurs who coerce homeless people to perform degrading and dangerous fights or stunts for money, alcohol or food.

Bum fights, Photo courtesy of Myspace

This isn’t the first time Lowenthal introduced a bill that would offer the homeless more protection. She wrote AB 2706, a similar piece of legislation, but former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it last year.

Lowenthal’s legislative aide Robinson said that AB 312 was identical to AB 2706. She said that Lowenthal wanted to give this bill another chance, hoping for a better result with new governor Jerry Brown.

“There are reasonable people on both sides of this argument,” said Wong. “Of course hate crimes are wrong and giving vulnerable groups of people protection is good, but extending protection too far can also fuel opponents against hate crime laws. Critics can say ‘What’s next? People with certain appearances need to be protected?’”

The Assembly Appropriations Committee has set the hearing for AB 312 for Apr. 13.


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