THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, July 10, 2012
Margie Menzel, The News Service of Florida
Florida is both a model and a cautionary tale for other states grappling with violent crimes against homeless people, and on Tuesday it will play a lead role at a congressional hearing on the subject.
A model: Florida passed a law in 2010 making violence against the homeless a hate crime, including a corresponding increase in penalties. It was the second state to do so.
A cautionary tale: Florida led the nation in violence against homeless people last year and drew national headlines in late May because of the bizarre "face-eating" attack on a homeless man in Miami.
Broward Sheriff's Capt. Rick Wierzbicki will testify Tuesday, urging the U.S. House of Representatives to adopt legislation to track assaults on the homeless nationwide. He and Broward Sheriff Al Lamberti, having overseen a series of gruesome crimes against homeless people in their jurisdiction, led the BSO in becoming the first Florida law enforcement agency to back protective legislation.
Among the crimes they oversaw was a 2006 cluster of attacks by teens using baseball bats. One assault was captured on video, and three of the teens were convicted. The skull of another victim, 45-year-old Norris Gaynor, a homeless veteran, was split as he slept on a park bench.
"Unfortunately, in Florida a lot of homeless like to live outside," said Wierzbicki. "They're much more vulnerable."
As to the cannibalistic attack in May, the Broward Sheriff's Office noted, "It seems the recent savage attack that left a Miami homeless man with his face disfigured may be the impetus for the renewed interest in curbing such violence on the national level."
That may be, but most people see it as an isolated incident, said Tom Pierce, who heads the state Office of Homelessness at the Department of Children and Families.
Wierzbicki said he thinks violence against Florida's homeless has lessened since the 2010 hate-crimes law, but both he and Pierce said the numbers of homeless people are vastly under-estimated – as are the crimes against them.
That's partly because only residents of homeless shelters and identifiable street locations are counted by the federal government. People who are "doubled up" – living with relatives or friends – are not counted. Neither are those in the woods or other encampments.
So while the 2012 federal point-in-time survey showed 54,300 homeless Floridians, Pierce said, state school districts reported 56,000 homeless children for the 2010-2011 academic year. And where there are homeless children, he said, there are homeless parents.
Many are frightened of the authorities, which makes counting them – or helping them – more difficult.
"Homeless families with children make it difficult to find them," said Pierce. "They're fearful that the government will take their children away because they can't support an environment for them."
According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, one of the co-sponsors of Tuesday's hearing, the numbers of homeless families and children are growing – to one in three of the total homeless population. Veterans make up more than one in 10 homeless people.
"We have no idea how many homeless people there are," said Neil Donovan, the coalition's executive director. "And you can't dedicate resources appropriately when you are lacking information."
That's why Wierzbicki, who tracks national as well as Florida crimes, said a law to simply count the crimes is the first step in curbing them. In other states, he added, violence against the homeless is increasing.
"You read almost every day about a homeless person who was the victim of a homicide or a sexual battery," he said. "We had one report where a person was degutted."
Donovan said he doesn't expect legislation to track violence against the homeless will result from Tuesday's hearing. "If it passes, great,'' he said. "But it's a very difficult climate…Our goal is to make inroads at the state level."