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Special report: The homeless struggle

Homeless attacks up in '06

By ABHI RAGHUNATHAN
Published February 21, 2007


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Attacks on the homeless rose at alarming levels across Florida and the country last year, according to a report released Tuesday by a national advocacy group.

The National Coalition for the Homeless counted 142 attacks on the homeless last year, up from 86 in 2005. The number of attacks in Florida jumped from 32 to 48 in the same time period, the coalition says.

Who's attacking the homeless? Mostly bored teenagers, experts say.

The incidents include the infamous beatings of homeless men in Fort Lauderdale and a wheelchair-bound homeless man who was set afire in Washington state.

"Police report after police report cites boredom or doing it just for the kicks as a cause for the attacks," said Jessica Schuler, a policy analyst for the coalition.

"These teens are seeing the homeless not as people, but as people that it's OK to do (these things) to."

Already, two homeless men have been shot and killed in St. Petersburg this year, and two young men have been arrested on charges of first-degree murder. Police say robbery may have been a motive in one of the shootings, but that the attackers didn't get anything.

St. Petersburg police have begun tracking attacks against the homeless and have counted at least eight such assaults since late December.

Sarah Snyder, executive director of the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless, said she had been hearing more stories about attacks in recent months.

"It seems to be more of a sport than in the past," Snyder said.

Lawmakers work toward a solution

The national coalition endorses laws that impose stricter penalties on people who attack the homeless.

The coalition also pushes for increased funding for the homeless.

The federal government announced Tuesday it would give $1.4-billion to support homeless programs, including $6.7-million for the Tampa Bay region, about the same as last year.

Bills currently pending in the state Legislature call for tougher sentences, including requiring a minimum three-year prison sentence for those who target homeless people in some violent attacks.

State law currently does not impose additional penalties on people convicted of targeting homeless people in attacks.

Rep. Bill Heller, D-St. Petersburg, is one of four sponsors of the bill in the House. Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, is sponsoring an identical bill in the Senate.

Heller says he hopes the bill dissuades attacks and creates more awareness about the problems of the homeless, many of whom are mentally ill.

"These people are at times very vulnerable so other people will just take advantage of them and hurt them for no reason," Heller said. "Our bill is intended to make sure that people understand these people have rights, and rights to protection. They have dignity."

For homeless, it's safety in numbers

Concerns about security helped lead to the creation of tent cities in St. Petersburg.

At the tent city on 18th Street near Central Avenue, several homeless people said there was safety in numbers.

"If you're lucky, you'll just get eggs thrown at you," said Kathy Hines, 57, a tent city resident.

St. Petersburg police themselves came under fire earlier this year when they used scissors, knives and box cutters to cut tents that homeless people were using for shelter.

Stanley Butler, 47, still remembers one incident after New Year's when people leaving bars and restaurants near BayWalk threw glass bottles at him and several other homeless people, yelled vulgarities at them and told them to get jobs.

"They were looking for someone to bother, and we're easy targets," he said.

Now, Butler patrols the tent city he stays in at night to make sure everyone is safe.

"It's added security," he said.

Times reporter Sheela Raman contributed to this report. Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at araghunathan@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

By the numbers

86 Number of attacks on the homeless in 2005.

142 Number of attacks on the homeless in 2006.

32 Number of attacks on the homeless in Florida in 2005.

48 Number of attacks on the homeless in Florida in 2006.

[Last modified February 21, 2007, 05:51:15]


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