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The following is a partial abstract.
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Harold Washington has two strikes against him: He’s black, and he’s homeless.
For the last seven months, Washington has slept in tents, under bridges, or on park benches. He temporarily claimed a room at a friend’s apartment until his roommate got in a fight with his girlfriend and she set the place on fire. “We were all lucky to get out of that one,” says Washington.
Last November, the day before Thanksgiving, he wasn’t so lucky.
Washington had just finished a day of labor at Tropicana Field, a major league baseball stadium located in a formerly African-American, working-class neighborhood near downtown St. Petersburg. Soon after he left the stadium, Washington was ambushed by a gang of six white youths he describes as “skinheads.”
“All I remember was waking up from a coma,” says Washington. “I ain’t heard no more about it.”
Similar reports of violent targeting of the homeless are rising sharply in America. According to Hate, Violence, and Death on Main Street USA, a 2006 report from the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH), 26 states recorded assaults or murders of homeless people committed last year, not counting so-called “homeless-on-homeless” violence. Nationwide, there were 142 reported attacks on homeless persons, up 65% from the 86 logged in 2005, and up almost 300% from the 36 docked in 2002. Included among the 2006 crimes were five rapes, six people set on fire and 20 murders. These numbers are almost certainly low, because a high percentage of attacks on the homeless are believed to go unreported.
The escalating violence and accompanying media coverage has prompted lawmakers in six states — California, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada and Texas — to introduce legislation that would extend hate crime laws to enhance penalties for violent crimes committed against homeless people. A seventh state, Maine, recently passed a law mandating harsher penalties for violence against the homeless without labeling such attacks hate crimes. Florida led the nation in 2006 with 48 reported attacks on the homeless in cities in all regions of the state — but legislators there voted down the proposed legislation in May. The state with the second highest tally, Arizona, had 16, all but one of which occurred in the Phoenix metropolitan area.