The Seattle Human Rights Commission (SHRC) has developed legislation to expand the city’s Malicious Harassment ordinance to include additional protection for people facing homelessness.
“Adding homelessness to the ordinance is important,” says commissioner Lubna Mahadeen, “because it will minimize the harassment this vulnerable population receives by securing a more severe penalty.”
Seattle’s malicious harassment law already expands on the state law by adding gender identity, marital status, political ideology, age and parental status to the state’s list of protected categories. Both laws are intended to offer protection from bodily injury, physical confinement, property damage and fear of harm.
Including homelessness would allow prosecutors to charge defendants with an additional crime when the victim is a member of this protected group.
The idea is supported by Mayor Greg Nickels and has been presented to various community stakeholders through a series of four meetings over the past nine months. They will be presented to the Seattle City Council in a hearing on Dec. 4.
While it is suspected that a large percentage of crimes against homeless people go unreported due to physical or mental illness, fear of retaliation and distrust of the system, there is still significant evidence that homeless people are at great risk of being victimized.
Nationally, attacks on homeless people have been on the rise. The National Coalition for the Homeless recorded 142 incidents last year, up from 86 in 2005; it was the most since the survey began in 1999.
This study ranked Seattle the seventh most dangerous city and Washington the third most dangerous state for homeless people.
There have been at least 614 violent acts against the homeless nationally in the past eight years, including 189 deaths. The 65 percent increase from 2005 to 2006 was the largest one-year jump in recorded attacks, according to the NCH. This surge in violence also has other states considering stiffer penalties for these crimes.
Last year, Maine became the first state to increase punishment for violence against homeless people, stopping short of making such attacks a separate hate crime. This year, Maryland added the homeless to groups protected under hate crime laws, and California, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada and Texas are considering such bills.
Historically, Seattle has taken a strong stance in regulating the homeless. Commissioner Jay Wellington points out the city’s many “unfriendly” laws dealing with panhandling, loitering, and trespassing. “Everyone has the right to protection; everyone has the right to feel safe in their home or community,” he says. “We feel it is important that there are also laws protecting these people from harassment.”
Seattle City Councilmember and chair of the Housing and Human Services Committee Tom Rasmussen anticipates concerns pertaining to whether a new law would be the most meaningful action. “We care deeply about public safety and want to ensure protection from violence,” he says, “but the question is, do harsher penalties equal a decline in crime?”
Council president Nick Licata agreed to sponsor the bill. While he believes this legislation will be considered seriously by the Council, he does not view it as an end-all solution. “Passing the ordinance, by itself, will not be enough,” he says, “but it does provide a framework for extending legal rights to homeless people.”
If the ordinance is expanded, the SHRC plans to couple it with a city-wide educational campaign involving presentations for middle and high school students and training materials for service providers, as well as the Seattle Police Department.
“The time we’ll spend talking to people and raising awareness gives us the opportunity to spur progress and cause groups to collaborate in ways they may not have otherwise,” says commissioner Marissa Chavez of the Youth Media Institute in Seattle. “It’s really about the conversations that will start,” she says.
The commission and affiliates want to launch an educational campaign aimed at teens and young adults because the majority of attacks against homeless people are perpetrated by youth ages 16 to 19, according to NCH studies.
If the ordinance is passed, local stakeholders in the homeless advocacy community, such as the University District Service Providers Alliance, SHARE/WHEEL, and the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness are prepared to collaborate on a campaign.
Human Rights Commission would like community support.You can help by:
• Contacting the City Council and asking that the ordinance be passed this year.
• Supporting the ordinance with your presence at a hearing in front of City Council on Dec. 4 at City Hall.
• Spreading the word about the proposal and encouraging others to contact the Council