Lawmakers are set to consider a proposal that would give homeless people protection under the state hate crimes act. Under the proposal anyone convicted of violent crimes against a homeless person—for example someone who lacks a regular place to sleep or is living in a homeless shelter—would be subject to a longer jail sentence.
It’s the second time Senator Bill O’Neill has introduced the measure, but he told KUNM Public Health Reporter Ed Williams he’s confident it will pass this session, given the recent brutal murders of two homeless Navajo men in Albuquerque.
O'Neill: Being homeless is such a violent experience, and many people do not realize that they are taken advantage of and assaulted and targeted the way that vulnerable folks are in our society, which is the whole reason why there’s a New Mexico Hate Crimes Act.
So, knowing this as I do, I went ahead and introduced a bill two years ago, which is basically the same bill that’s before the legislature now, to make targeting a homeless person a hate crime and to protect homeless individuals from these heinous acts the way that other folks have been offered that protection.
It’s a chance for us as New Mexicans to send a message that this is not acceptable behavior. You can’t target homeless people thinking that nobody cares. It sends a message that you cannot do this without consequences.
KUNM: The purpose of this bill is to discourage and prevent violence against homeless people. How do you think a law like this will actually prevent this kind of crime?
I don’t presume it’s going to solve the problem. But on the other hand it’s not a feel good measure, meaning it does make a difference.
It’s a two-year enhancement, which might not sound like a lot, but in other states where this has been enacted they’ve seen a drop in crime against homeless individuals. You just do what you can as a legislator, but it is important. It’ something that will send a message.
KUNM: “Homelessness” is a shaky definition, because it’s hard to measure, it’s hard to tell who is homeless and when. Are you confident that you’re defining homelessness here in a way that includes all the people that might be vulnerable to this kind of violence?
Yes, and that’s a great question. That is the challenge with a bill like this, who’s homeless? How do you define who’s homeless and who isn’t homeless? And also you don’t want to define it as homeless on homeless crime, which is very much a part of the homeless experience.
So we feel good about our definition. We do benefit from the example of five or six other states that have done this, and there’s a national organization that helps with the drafting of this kind of legislation. So we feel pretty good about our definition of homelessness.