Seattle’s homeless are now afforded status as a protected group under the city’s hate crime law.
Last week, the City Council public safety committee approved a proposal that would add homelessness to its protected classes under the existing Malicious Harassment ordinance. The amendment passed the full council unanimously Dec. 10.
This legislation is supported by Mayor Greg Nickels and was developed by the Seattle Human Rights Commission. This group and other community stakeholders cite the rise of brutal attacks on the homeless in recent years, including recent statistics by the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) that named Seattle the seventh-most dangerous city for homeless people.
“This has been a long time coming,” says Leo Rhodes of SHARE, one of several to provide personal testimony of unprovoked attacks.
“There are countless stories people haven’t heard, but when a homeless person speaks, no one listens,” he says. “People out on the streets right now don’t feel like human beings.”
“We need to listen to the stories of homeless people,” says Julie Nelson of the Seattle Office of Civil Rights. “When I think about the fact that this is tolerated, it’s horrible, anything I have to say on the matter is secondary,” she says.
Seattle’s malicious harassment law expands on the state law by adding gender identity, marital status, political ideology, age, and parental status to its protected classes, and is meant to offer protection from bodily injury, physical confinement, property damage, and fear of harm.
Amending the ordinance allows prosecutors to charge defendants with an additional crime if the victim is homeless.
“What will help make this truly significant is if, when crimes are committed, the city attorney uses the law to its full extent,” says Alison Eisinger of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness.
But according to City Attorney Thomas Carr, the ordinance change will have little effect in court.
Carr supports the proposal. “It’s a good change. It highlights things that are happening to homeless people,” he says. But he is quick to point out that the city already takes the law as far as it can constitutionally.
“Seattle’s existing harassment conviction is a gross misdemeanor, with a maximum prison sentence of one year,” he says. “A malicious harassment charge carries no greater sentence.”
Furthermore, a malicious harassment conviction requires proof that the perpetrator targeted the victim because of his or her class. “It generally won’t be charged because a lesser crime with the same sentence will be easier to prove,” Carr says.
The city charged just one person with malicious harassment this year, whereas 451 ordinary harassment charges were filed, according to court record.
But from the human rights perspective, the move to include homelessness means everything.
In a statement released following last week’s hearing, council president Nick Licata stated, “These changes will provide tough measures that demonstrate that the city will not tolerate this kind of behavior.”
If the ordinance is passed, city officials and local stakeholders in the homeless advocacy community plan to couple it with a citywide educational campaign in schools (NCH statistics show that the majority of attacks are perpetrated by youth ages 16-19), for service providers, and for the Seattle Police Department.
They also share the goal of launching a campaign to include homelessness under the state’s hate crime law. At the state level, malicious harassment is a felony and can be punished with multiple years in jail, says Carr.