In the dark hours early on August 27, while sleeping behind a building near Winchester Road in Lexington, a 61-year-old homeless man was set on fire. He is currently in intensive care at UK hospital, but is expected to survive. So far the police have no suspects in this hate crime.
However, the incident is not considered a hate crime at all because current law does not include homelessness as a eligible category for such an offense. The National Coalition for the Homeless is seeking to change that. In their on-going effort to highlight this type of crime, they publish a bi-annual report detailing their research into hate crimes committed against homeless people. In their 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 their statistics with just 3 incidences in the last twelve years (California had 225 and Florida 198). These statistics exclude any acts of violence committed by homeless individuals against each other 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:
"Over the past twelve years (1999-2010), hundreds of homeless people have been attacked and killed. While this report provides alarming numbers, many attacks go undocumented. Homeless people are treated so poorly by society that their attacks are often forgotten or unreported. In 2010 alone, one hundred thirteen incidents resulted in twenty-four deaths. Since 1999, The National Coalition for the Homeless has recorded one thousand, one hundred eighty-four acts of violence that have resulted in three hundred twelve deaths".
Another section of the report seeking to understand factors associated with these hate crimes, states that:
"There is a documented relationship between increased police action and the increasing numbers of hate crimes/violent acts against homeless people. Many cities...... have enacted severe anti-camping, panhandling, anti-feeding, and other criminalization of homelessness laws. 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 city ordinances proposed to our City Council and now under review, including such items as a "nuisance" ordinance to give police more options to control unwanted street behavior and another proposed ordinance change that requires any group planning to open a daytime drop-in center for homeless persons to undergo greater public scrutiny before being allowed to proceed. In addition, the city's Board of Adjustment is moving forward with closing down the Community Inn, a shelter for homeless men and women operated under the auspices of Emmanuel Apostolic Church.
The Mayor has recently established a Commission on Homelessness to address these and other homeless issues in Lexington. Given concerns about increasing violence against homeless persons 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 persons as "them" and not "us", we risk our sense of community.
"We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection". It is time to better appreciate these words spoken by Kentucky's most famous native son, Abraham Lincoln. 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.
David Christiansen, MSW
Central Kentucky Housing and Homeless Initiative
Read the edited version of David's Story here on the LHL.