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Bill boosts punishment for attacks on homeless

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Leslie

The Blade/Dave Zapotosky
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They've been urinated on. They've been punched, beaten, kicked, stabbed, shot, set on fire, and humiliated by spray paint.

All because they're broke and living on the streets.

Homeless people can be as much of a victim of hate crimes as gays, lesbians, Jews, African-Americans, Middle Easterners, and people from other various lifestyles, religious sects, or ethnic races, officials said.

Such crimes against the homeless may not have reached epidemic proportions in Toledo yet, but a 2009 study ranked Ohio the nation's fourth-worst state for such attacks, according to Brian Davis, chairman of the National Coalition for the Homeless' civil rights committee.

Florida has been the nation's worst for four consecutive years.

"We want to prevent it from becoming a sport here," said Ken Leslie, whose 1Matters.org Web site promotes dignity among people from all walks of life.

The attacks are often out of sight, under bridges or in dark alleys, by gang members or other youths trying to impress each other. That they often are against homeless people who even bothering anyone adds to the insult, officials said.

A bill recently introduced by state Rep. Mike Foley (D., Cleveland) would give county prosecutors the authority to upgrade charges one level for violence associated with such attacks, on the grounds that such crimes are meant to intimidate the homeless.

A fourth-degree felony could be prosecuted as a third-degree felony, a third-degree felony could be prosecuted as a second-degree, and so forth.

Modeled after a similar bill introduced in 2007, the new Ohio legislation was crafted in response to high-profile events in Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Dayton. The earlier version died in committee, Mr. Davis said.

Mr. Leslie said his group and others have worked with the National Coalition for the Homeless to have Ohio become the latest to pass such legislation.

Maine, Maryland, Florida, and the District of Columbia have laws in places affording the homeless more protection. The Sunshine State's legislation was signed into law by Florida Gov. Charlie Crist last week.

The Associated Press has reported that California, which ranks second nationally in crimes against the homeless, is considering a bill to give the homeless, or public interest groups working on their behalf, the right to seek redress by suing their attackers for civil rights violations.

Those pushing for the law hope the Ohio General Assembly passes it before the legislative session expires in December. Lawmakers are expected to begin summer recess this month and are not likely to return to session until after the November election.

One of the bill's co-sponsors is state Rep. Barbara Sears, a Sylvania Republican whose support is considered by Mr. Leslie as an important link toward gaining bipartisan backing.

Ms. Sears said, "For me, it's a pretty simple issue. If your home is under the stars, you ought to get a little extra protection."

Attacking the homeless is "preying on the most vulnerable of us all," she said.

Until recently, attacks against the homeless could be seen on some of the most popular Web sites known for showing videos.

"The message seems to be out there with these videos and stuff on the Internet that it is acceptable to attack the homeless. We have to get a message through to Columbus that our society cannot tolerate this," Mr. Davis said.

Said Mr. Leslie: "Truly the weakest among us need to be protected."

Toledo city councilmen and Lucas County commissioners have passed resolutions condemning hate crimes against the homeless.

Contact Tom Henry at:

thenry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6079.

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