Demonizing the homeless leads to fear and violence

David Christiansen is executive director of the Central Kentucky Housing and Homeless Initiative.
David Christiansen is executive director of the Central Kentucky Housing and Homeless Initiative.

In the dark and early morning of Aug. 27, while sleeping behind a building near Winchester Road in Lexington, a 61-year-old homeless man was set on fire. He is in intensive care at University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital but is expected to survive.

The police have no suspects in this hate crime.

But the incident is not considered a hate crime because current law does not include homelessness as an eligible category for such an offense.

The National Coalition for the Homeless is seeking to change that. As part of the organization's ongoing effort to highlight this type of crime, it publishes a biannual report detailing its research into hate crimes committed against homeless people.

In the most recent edition, "Hate Crimes Against the Homeless: Violence Hidden in Plain View," they tabulated these crimes from across the country. Kentucky is barely noted in the statistics, with just three incidents in the past 12 years (California had 225 and Florida 198).

These statistics exclude any acts of violence committed by homeless individuals against one another, and a crime is included only if the attack was primarily motivated because the victim was a homeless person. The scope of the problem is highlighted in the report as follows:

"Homeless people are treated so poorly by society that their attacks are often forgotten or unreported. In 2010 alone, 113 incidents resulted in 24 deaths. Since 1999, The National Coalition for the Homeless has recorded 1,184 acts of violence that have resulted in 312 deaths."

Another section of the report seeking to understand factors associated with these hate crimes says many cities have enacted severe anti-camping, panhandling, feeding and other laws criminalizing homelessness.

Many of these cities "are also cities where hate crimes against homeless individuals have frequently occurred. One possible explanation for this is the message that criminalizing homelessness sends to the general public: 'Homeless people do not matter and are not worthy of living in our city.' This message is blatant in the attitudes many cities have toward homeless people and can be used as an internal justification for attacking someone who is homeless."

Homelessness in Lexington has been accorded increased attention recently, with a number of ordinances proposed and now under review, including a nuisance ordinance to give police more options to control unwanted street behavior and an ordinance change that requires any group planning to open a daytime drop-in center for homeless people to undergo greater public scrutiny before being allowed to proceed.

In addition, the city's Board of Adjustment is moving forward with closing the Community Inn, a shelter for homeless men and women operated under the auspices of Emmanuel Apostolic Church.

The mayor recently established a Commission on Homelessness to address these and other homeless issues in Lexington. Given concerns about increasing violence against homeless people and public policies that seek to criminalize homelessness, it seems far better for our city to approach concerns regarding homelessness in a collaborative and compassionate way as an inclusive community and not slip into the ugly and hostile patterns to which some cities have succumbed.

As we increasingly move toward objectifying homeless people as "them" and not "us," we risk our sense of community.

It is time to better appreciate the words spoken by Kentucky's most famous native son, Abraham Lincoln: "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection."

Our city will be far better served by allowing ourselves to listen to "the better angels of our nature," as Lincoln suggested, as we seek to understand and find solutions for homelessness.

Demonizing our homeless neighbors as the enemy will only lead to more fear, hatred and violence.