Opinion: People experiencing homelessness need protection

David Heitz

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By David Heitz / NewsBreak Denver

(Denver, Colo.)

I learned first-hand while unhoused in 2019 that people experiencing homelessness are despised in Denver.

In fact, people experiencing homelessness are detested around the world. But what drives this hatred?

Soon a Canadian court will sentence a man who stabbed three unhoused people after spraying them with a fire extinguisher. He did this while they slept or were inebriated. One knife sank into someone’s liver, and another damaged a kidney.

Premeditated crimes against homeless

What makes this case slightly different from others is that the suspect, Asher Atter, told a buddy before his pre-Christmas 2021 crime spree that he wanted to “fight a downtown addict,” according to the Globe and Mail. “After front-line officers investigated the case, the Calgary service’s hate-crimes unit made a decision virtually unheard of in the Canadian justice system: police concluded the stabbings were not ordinary assaults, but rather hate-motivated crimes against homeless people,” the newspaper reported. “Assaults on homeless people are almost never classifed as hate crimes in Canada, because the Criminal Code does not specifically identify people living on city streets as a marginalized group. This means offenders who target homeless people usually don’t receive the stiffer penalties Canadian law reserves for crimes motivated by prejudice.”

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People experiencing homelessness are not a protected class in the U.S. either. The lack of a hate crime charge means those who harass the homeless for being who they are usually get by with it.

Cathy Alderman, spokesperson for Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, noted people experiencing homelessness aren’t a protected class in Colorado either. “We explored that once but didn’t get very far based on the mutability of homelessness (i.e., homelessness is a characteristic that can be changed),” she said in an email. “It’s something that’s always on the table to discuss.”

Texas group creates protected class resolution

House the Homeless, Inc., an Austin, Texas-based advocacy group, created a sample resolution for creating a protected class for homeless people. “Because many states and cities are passing and enforcing laws targeting poor and homeless people, and the fact that homeless people are targets of senseless assaults and murder due to their condition of homelessness, House the Homeless feels the need for the adoption of this resolution by city, state, and the United States governments,” wrote Richard R. Troxell, president of the organization.

The resolution outlines the need for making homelessness a protected class with several bullet points, including:

· “The United States government has adopted and is party to the United Nations document referenced as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which ‘confers on every member of society a right to basic economic, social, and cultural entitlements, that every (nation) state should recognize, serve, and protect, of which food, clothing, medical care, and housing are definitive components of the right to a minimum standard of living and dignity.’”

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· The U.S. also has adopted the U.N.’s Habitat Agenda, “which calls for certain actions that include but are not limited to: protection against discrimination, legal security of tenure and equal access to land including women and the poor; effective protection from illegal forced evictions, taking human rights into consideration, bearing in mind that homeless people should not be penalized for their status; by adopting policies aimed at making housing habitable, affordable and accessible, including those who are unable to secure adequate housing through their own means.”

· The combined effects of a low national minimum wage and a lack of affordable housing “create a group of people that have no alternatives to living on the streets of our nation.”

Where does hate come from?

But why does the need to make homeless people a special class exist? What drives the hatred of homeless people?

On Reddit, under the "Too Afraid to Ask" sub, a poster asks,"Why do so many Americans hate the homeless with an unrivaled passion?"

“All the money spent on ‘hostile architecture,’ playing annoying music in parks so they can't sleep, denying them access to public bathrooms and not wanting shelters anywhere in your immediate vicinity and punishing them when it would cost a fraction of that to feed and give them shelter points to real hatred,” the Redditor writes. “When it's cheaper to help them than to punish them, but you'd rather do the former through laws and policies made to hurt the poorest and most helpless of you. Why is that a thing?”

The Redditor updated their post to say they received more than 600 comments in the first 20 hours. The poster notes among the most common replies:

· “(Homeless people) are filthy (stinking, leaving behind human waste, etc.)”

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· “Because they are mentally ill and therefore dangerous.”

· “Because they are addicts and therefore dangerous.”

· “The American dream ideology, or more accurately that everyone is responsible for where they end up. Poor people are poor because they are lazy, and rich people rich because they earned it. If they only pulled themselves up by their bootstraps they wouldn't be homeless. Meaning everyone who dropped a comment here - the only reason you're not a millionaire is because you're not working hard enough.”

Brain sometimes ‘dehumanizes’ homelessness

Surveys of people experiencing homelessness show that most are not dangerous, on drugs, or mentally ill. They simply are without housing. A sociologist, Lasana Harris of Duke University, conducted research which may help explain Americans’ poor treatment of people experiencing homelessness. In essence, she declared, many Americans dehumanize homeless people.

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“It may be that a person can become callous enough to commit human atrocities because of a failure in the part of the brain that's critical for social interaction,” according to a Duke University news release. Harris’ study “suggests this function may disengage when people encounter others they consider disgusting, thus ‘dehumanizing’ their victims by failing to acknowledge they have thoughts and feelings.”

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, unhoused people have been set ablaze while they sleep, beaten with golf clubs, and a host of other atrocities. “The victims have endured humiliations both great and small and the injuries they sustained created not only physical pain and scars, but also the crippling effects of wounded self-esteem and dignity of the human spirit,” according to the Coalition’s website. “To effectively address the problem of violence towards homeless people, it needs to become a priority of communities, media, and legislators.”

Given that people have the capacity to “dehumanize” people experiencing homelessness, there is no stronger argument for making them a protected class.

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I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career in editing roles at local newspapers in Los Angeles, Detroit, and the Quad-Cities of Illinois and Iowa. Upon moving to Denver in 2018, I began experiencing severe mental illness due to several traumatic experiences. I became homeless on the street for about a year before spending time in the state mental hospital. I am living proof that people can rebound from mental illness with proper treatment, even after experiencing homelessness. I consider myself a lucky guy to live in a great place like Denver. I hope my writing reflects the passion I have for living here. You can email me news releases and story ideas at NewsBreakDave@gmail.com

Denver, CO

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