January 07, 2013
Homeless and Housing Resource Network writer Wendy Grace Evans-Dittmer recently had the opportunity to testify on a hate crimes bill in the state of New Mexico. If passed, this bill will elevate crimes against people who are homeless to the status of hate crimes. In this blog, she recounts her experience.
Eloise goes to the Plaza Hotel in New York City. Wendy goes to the legislature in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Several weeks ago, Senator Elect Bill O’Neill asked me to testify for a hate crimes bill to protect people experiencing homelessness. I testified on another homelessness matter for the Senator Elect in the past and was immediately happy to participate. Emails back and forth, as well as my experience covering Maryland’s passing of a homeless hate crimes bill, helped develop our plan for the testimony. I spoke with Michael Stoops of the National Coalition for the Homeless for additional information, including how to field questions we might receive from the sub-committee.
While all physical assault is a crime, a “hate crime” is prosecuted more seriously. A hate crime is a crime that is motivated by prejudice towards a minority. Congress’ definition of a hate crime includes: "criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender's bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation." If passed, the bill that Senator O’Neill and I testified for would add New Mexico to the list of states that include homelessness in their hate crime legislation.
I entered the Capitol building in search of Room 307. It was difficult not to meander through the majestic halls, but instead I raced to the third floor. Senator Elect O’Neill had begun his testimony and beckoned me to take a place beside him. My role was to explain that people who misunderstand “the homeless” misunderstand that they are simply human beings without a home. Homelessness is a state of being. Someone you might see on the street is someone else’s brother, sister, mother, father, or child. I stated gruesome statistics about the beatings, burnings, and even decapitations of 880 individuals experiencing homelessness in 46 states over the course of ten years.
Senator Elect O’Neill shared the story of a man experiencing homelessness that he knew personally. This man was the victim of what would be a “hate crime” if this bill is passed. Father Rusty Smith, a giant of a man and the Director of St. Martin’s, a “hospitality center” located in Albuquerque, New Mexico, testified as well. He knew of a young man who lived with his parents, had a job, a car, and lived with mental illness. His parents died suddenly and he lost everything, only to wind up under a bridge. Young boys attacked him, relentlessly stabbing him 20 times. While the man who was living under the bridge survived, his story embodies the kind of hatred-fueled attack that skip the daily lives of the average citizen.
The subcommittee voted to take the bill to a vote for an endorsement the following day. Wendy returned to the Capitol and witnessed the political process: a machine at work. In this case, the machine returned an almost unanimous endorsement, save one abstention. The bill will now go to the legislature. We will testify again, and potentially a third time, if fortune shines through the windows of the legislative hallways.
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