I track hate crimes against homeless people across the country. Last week, I added John Robert McGraham to the list. He was doused with gasoline and set on fire at 3rd and Berendo streets, in the heart of Los Angeles, by an unknown assailant or assailants. He died.
It happened close to where a homeless woman, Margaret Mitchell, was accidentally shot and killed by a police officer nine years ago, and not far from where homeless people were assaulted by four teenagers last year.
Of course, Los Angeles is not the only locale for hatred. Homeless people have been murdered in Denver, Milwaukee and in Fort Lauderdale and Daytona Beach, Fla. The most recent study by the National Coalition for the Homeless documents 160 attacks on homeless people in 2007, an increase of 13% over 2006. Twenty-eight were killed; California had the second-highest number of attacks.
What leads people to bash or kill others who are trying to survive on our streets? Such violence is sadistic, perhaps random. And yet homeless people are the easiest of targets: We have systematically refused to solve the problems they represent.
Last month, California passed a budget that eliminated $4 million for homeless services and housing. In the next fiscal year, the cuts will wipe out the Emergency Housing and Assistance Program, which provides annual funding for shelters, food banks and transitional housing. These are the frontline efforts in the war, creating places for the homeless to go. Fewer people living on our streets means fewer hate crimes against them.
Because of a bad economy, powerful political leaders in Sacramento decided to defund efforts that help the poorest of the poor. This seems to be backward logic. Shouldn't we be increasing programs for such people when times get harder?
There is a call in Los Angeles to create a task force to protect homeless people from hate crimes. Many states have considered legislation to add homeless people to hate-crime laws -- Alaska, California, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, Ohio and Texas. The impulse behind such efforts is good, but why not take a more fundamental approach to the problem? If we house all of our citizens -- and if we include in that systems for those who have mental health problems -- we won't have to worry about people sleeping on our streets and being bashed or killed. What about legislation to give all citizens a right to supportive housing?
Not providing enough shelters or housing for the homeless, defunding programs that get people off the streets and an increase in violent crimes against homeless people show that the poorest of the poor are not high enough on society's priority list.
McGraham's life ended horrifically. Let's respond to that crime by increasing our compassion -- and our programs -- for the needy and vulnerable who live on our streets.
Joel John Roberts is the chief executive officer of PATH Partners, a network of homeless and housing agencies, and the publisher of LA's Homeless blog.