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Some say attack on homeless is a hate crime

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Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

In the wake of the weekend’s slaying of two homeless men, there is renewed interest in including the homeless as a protected class in existing hate crimes legislation.

State Sen. Bill O’Neill, D-Albuquerque, said Tuesday that he will reintroduce Senate Bill 124 in the next legislative session. In the 2013 session, the bill had wide bipartisan support and was endorsed unanimously by the courts and the Criminal Justice Interim Committee. Ultimately, O’Neill said, it ran out of time.

The bill would add the homeless to the existing categories of people protected from crimes that are based on hatred because of age, gender identity, sexual orientation, handicapped status, race, color, national origin, ancestry and religion.

People guilty of such hate crimes would face a sentencing enhancement of up to two years, depending on the circumstances.

“I’m not big on enhancements, but we as a society need to make a statement that the most vulnerable among us deserve special protection,” O’Neill told the Journal.

Two states, Florida and Maryland, have already added homelessness to their existing hate crimes laws, he said.

Dr. Matias Vega, medical director at Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless, sees up-close the violence against the homeless, who regularly come to the clinic with cuts, scrapes, bruises, bone fractures and post-concussion symptoms.

“Over the last decade, we’re seeing nationwide a great increase in traumatic brain injury in people who are homeless, and these injuries are largely due to violent trauma rather then falls or getting hit by vehicles,” he said.

Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless is part of the National Coalition for the Homeless, which began lobbying to include the homeless in hate crimes legislation in the mid 1990s. The Department of Justice, he said, “declined to pursue it,” but widespread support has been growing, in part because of data collected by the NCH.

“The homeless have no control over their status of being homeless at the time they are homeless, and at the time they are attacked,” Vega said. “That’s the essence of a hate crime, which targets folks of a particular status, because of their status.”

According to NCH data, since 1999 there have been more than 1,400 acts of violence against homeless individuals and more than 375 deaths reported in 47 states, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., Vega said. Of the victims, 72 percent were men over age 40, and among the perpetrators, 48 percent were males under the age of 20 – demographics that seem to fit Friday’s killings in Albuquerque.

Homeless hate crimes leading to death “have been greater in number than all other deadly hate crimes combined in 14 out of the last 15 years across all of the U.S.,” Vega said. “Sadly, what has happened locally in Albuquerque over the past two months is neither unique nor surprising.”

The three teens, Alex Rios, 18, Nathaniel Carillo, 16 and Gilbert Tafoya, 15, are accused of using a cinder block and metal pole to kill two homeless Navajo men as they slept in a field near Central Avenue and 60th Street. The victims were so savagely beaten that their faces were unrecognizable, police said.

Tafoya told police that the teens had previously targeted and beaten as many as 50 homeless people.

Despite that, at a news conference Tuesday, District Attorney Kari Brandenburg said there was no indication it was a hate crime, at least according to how the current law is written.

“It was a hateful act, obviously. Two people lost their lives,” she said. “But there is no indication (of a hate crime). A hate crime would mean they are targeting a group of people or discriminating in some way and there is no indication” of that.

The Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission said it will investigate the attack and try to determine if it was an isolated incident or a pattern, said Lauren Bernally, the interim director of the commission.

She said attacks on Navajo indigents is an ongoing problem in towns that border the Navajo Nation. She said the commission is currently investigating attacks on homeless Navajos in Grants in 2009 and Cuba in 2012.

Homeless Navajos “are occasionally preyed on by other people,” she said. “We’re hoping that through public education we can get the word out to Navajo citizens about their rights.”

Journal staff writer Ryan Boetel contributed to this report.

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