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Symbolic and Practical: Maryland Passes Historic Hate Crimes Bill
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Violent crimes committed against people who are homeless in Maryland now face stiffer penalties. Michael Stoops of The National Coalition for the Homeless, Kevin Lindamood of Maryland’s Healthcare for the Homeless, and Antonia Fasanelli of the Homeless Persons Representation Project speak about the passage of Senate Bill 151. The bill makes Maryland the first state in the nation to include individuals who are homeless as a protected class under its hate crimes law.
Symbolic and Practical: Maryland Passes Historic Hate Crimes Bill

On May 7, 2009, Maryland became the first state to add people who are homeless as a protected class to its hate crimes law. The new law represents a significant victory for human dignity.  Violence against people who are homeless is a national tragedy. Between 1999 and 2007, 774 documented acts of violence were committed against people who are homeless, and 217 of these attacks resulted in death.

Antonia Fasanelli is Executive Director of The Homeless Persons Representation Project. She points out that violent attacks against the most vulnerable members of our society represent a situation that has been pervasive and ignored for too long.

“Homelessness is a dangerous condition,” explains Fasanelli, who has testified about the reality of violence on the streets.

Maryland has taken an important step, and is the only state in the nation to have passed a hate crimes law protecting people who are homeless. The bill provides for increased penalties and fines for those found guilty of attacks committed against someone because they are homeless. The penalties range from three years in prison and five thousand dollars for a misdemeanor charge, to twenty years and twenty thousand dollars for a felony charge.

 “It’s important to send the message that acts of violence are unacceptable. More importantly, the passage of Senate Bill 151 has given us an opportunity to talk publicly about homelessness and talk about the real crime which is homelessness itself,” says Kevin Lindamood, Vice President of External Affairs at Healthcare for the Homeless in Baltimore.

Michael Stoops of the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) has been closely tracking violence against people who are homeless for the past ten years. He believes that homelessness hate crimes should be added to state and federal statutes.
 
“It will serve as both a symbolic and practical message that attacks will not be tolerated,” offers Stoops
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NCH is involved in community education around this issue in schools and churches. The organization is working with individuals who were formerly homeless through the Homeless Speakers Bureau. Speakers educate people nationwide about the severity of the problem. They have also received a major grant from the AmeriCorps program and have 30 VISTA volunteers currently working in Florida and Georgia. They are slated to expand to other states with the same model.

“You would assume it would be easy to add homelessness to the hate crimes statute, but it took ten years for sexual orientation to be added,” says Stoops.
 
Since 2006, a dozen states have considered adding homelessness to the their statute. Maryland’s success came after four years of lobbying and educating lawmakers to the extent of the problem. Currently a bill is pending in Washington D.C. and Stoops is hopeful it will pass. Bills are also pending in California and soon to be in Ohio.

“We are trying to get homelessness added to a federal statute, but if we have to do this state by state, we will,” offers Stoops.

The text of Maryland’s historic state law declares:

“For the purpose of including homeless persons and a person’s gender within the scope of certain prohibitions against committing certain crimes against certain persons, damaging certain property of certain persons, burning certain objects, and damaging certain buildings with which certain persons or groups have contacts or associations or under circumstances exhibiting animosity against a certain person or group; prohibiting the attempt to commit a crime against a certain person because of the race, color, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, gender, or national origin of that person, or because the person is homeless; establishing that a certain penalty applies to certain offenses; defining a certain term; and generally relating to hate crimes.”

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