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Editorial: NM homeless need short- and long-term protections

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A cycle of violence, substance abuse and homelessness is an all-too-common story, usually confined to the streets and back alleys and the far-flung reservations.

And while long-term changes are needed to improve these people’s lives – and let’s emphasize they are people – a short-term adjustment could make them less inviting to predators.

State Sen. Bill O’Neill plans to reintroduce legislation in the 2015 session that would include homeless people as a protected class in existing hate crimes law and add a sentencing enhancement of up to two years upon conviction. The proposal has a tragic sense of immediacy considering the savage beating deaths of two homeless Navajo men off West Central in Albuquerque last weekend.

The men, who had been drinking, were beaten with a cinder block, a metal fence post and debris from the open lot where they had been sleeping on mattresses. And by the hands and feet of their alleged attackers – three teenagers reportedly looking for trouble and someone to beat up because one was upset over a breakup with his girlfriend. One told police they have attacked as many as 50 homeless people in recent months.

Last month, a still-unidentified driver of a pickup truck veered onto a sidewalk across the street from the Albuquerque Rescue Mission and killed a woman sleeping there. Police believe it was done purposefully.

O’Neill’s proposal, similar to ones in Florida and Maryland, sends a serious message to society that the homeless are not an underclass to be abused, and it merits serious consideration.

No, you can’t totally legislate people’s behavior, but it’s important to recognize “the homeless have no control over their status of being homeless at the time they are homeless, and at the time they are attacked,” says Dr. Matias Vega, medical director at Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless. “That’s the essence of a hate crime, which targets folks of a particular status, because of their status.”

The beating and hit-and-run victims were not just targets of opportunity; they had names – Allison Gorman, 44, of Shiprock, Kee Thompson, 45 or 46, from Church Rock, and Nancy Myers, 53.

And no matter what their struggles, they did not deserve their horrific deaths. The Navajo Nation plans to ask the FBI to investigate the deaths of Gorman and Thompson to determine if they were racially motivated and will work with the city to address homeless Native Americans.

Give the city administration, which already has done great work in putting homeless people into permanent housing, credit for being willing to work with the tribe and Mayor Richard Berry for planning to go to the Navajo Nation.

Breaking the cycle that made these people easy prey presents a long-term challenge. Mandatory treatment for those picked up for public drunkenness requires more programs than exist now and the legal ability to force them to do something for their own safety, health and welfare. So does meeting the health and housing needs of homeless clients.

But in the short term it may be possible to offer a little legal protection in the form of tougher sanctions for their abusers. It might not keep them warm at night. But it might help keep them alive.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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