By Cydney Gillis, Real Change News
David Ballenger lived under a freeway overpass. For that reason alone, three young men kicked, beat and stabbed him to death near Green Lake in August 1999.
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer quoted one of the men saying there’s “one less bum on the face of the earth.”
The murder of Ballenger was one of more than 60 attacks on homeless people nationwide. By 2009, the annual number of attacks had nearly doubled, to 106, and there were more than twice as many murders, 27, according to a 2009 report from the National Coalition for the Homeless.
In Oregon, 10 people experiencing homelessness were killed because they were homeless, and 27 were injured between 1999 and 2009.
Scott White, who was a state representative for North Seattle at the time, used to see Ballenger, a Vietnam veteran, walking the streets of North Seattle. He wrote an op-ed in this newspaper decrying the violence and pledging to do something about it.
Finally, White can say he has.
On April 15, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed legislation White authored that allows for increased penalties on those convicted of committing a crime against a homeless person.
In cases of second-degree assault, for example, judges can increase the sentence from seven years to 10. The law takes effect Aug. 15.
A homeless hate crimes bill in Oregon died in the committee process this session.
Ballenger’s three killers — Michael Caffee, Shelton Musgrave and Jay Stewart — went to prison in 2000. Caffee spent six years in prison and one year on parole on a manslaughter charge, according to the Department of Corrections. Musgrave served nine years for murder and is expected to finish his parole in June. Stewart is still serving a 17-year sentence.
Joe Ingram, a homeless advocate who testified for the bill and once lived on the street, said White’s law will make a difference.
“You sit down with people that are homeless and they talk about getting beat up and sexual violence, and the response from police is always less than enthusiastic,” Ingram said. “What this (law) does is makes them feel more empowered.”
What the law doesn’t do, however, is compel police to investigate alleged attacks on homeless people.
The Seattle City Council amended its own municipal hate crimes ordinance in 2007, adding the homeless as a category. Since 2008, when the change took effect, the city attorney’s office has charged three people under the law, none of them for a crime committed on a homeless person.
Even if every officer did investigate crimes reported by the homeless, they’d never catch up because there are too many, Shirey said.
Real Change vendor Mona Joyner said the law won’t bring back her fiancé, José Lucio. In 1999, a group of men pushed him off a freeway overpass in downtown Seattle. The state patrol did little to investigate and never answered her calls or letters, she said.
White, the bill’s author, said it’s up to local police and prosecutors to use the law. He said if they don’t, he’ll look at adding the homeless to the state’s hate crimes statute, something he tried in an earlier bill in 2010 and lawmakers shot down.
“Yeah, it’s a symbol — and it will help,” White said. “But do we have a lot more work to do? You bet we do, absolutely.”
Originally published by Real Changes News, Seattle, Wash.