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Rise in homeless attacks in US

September 08 2010
Eight in 10 Americans who sleep rough have been victims of crime

There has been a sharp rise in the number of homeless people who are being attacked in America.

With the increase of homelessness due to the economic downturn, more rough sleepers across the country are being set on fire, beaten, stabbed, shot and raped. Of the 3.5m Americans who sleep rough each year, around eight in 10 have been the victims of crime whilst living on the streets.

Records for 'hate crimes' against homeless people first began in 1999 after the National Coalition of Homelessness compiled the first report of its kind. Since then, they have published regular reports into levels of violence against men and women living on the streets, recording more than 240 deaths.

Many attacks, however, go unreported, making it difficult to assess the true extent of the situation, as some rough sleepers do not tell police of crimes committed against them because of mental health issues, substance abuse or fear of retaliation.

John Joyce, co-executive director of the Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project, said: "People are just being targeted because they are homeless. It's a safe crime - it's almost like vandalising a street sign.

"The victim doesn't come and tell the police about it. They're ashamed of where they're at in their life right now.

"Victims don't really want to come forward because the way the police departments think and the community thinks: 'No one's going to believe me anyway if I do get assaulted.'"

One recent attack was in Cincinnati, Ohio, when rough sleeper John Johnson, 52, needed 18 stitches in his head after being attacked by four men as he slept under a highway overpass. He said: "I was awakened by four young men. "They started beating me with pipes and bats upside the head and up and down the left side of my body."

And last month, a 23-year-old homeless man was found severely beaten under a bridge in Seattle. Three of the four attackers have been charged. The fourth has not yet been caught. Worryingly, more than three-quarters (75 per cent) of those attacking homeless people are under 25, with many filming their crimes as part of fad known as "bum rushing".