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Unprovoked beatings of homeless soaring, report says

Surge in violence by young adults

August Felix of Orlando, Fla., died of head injuries. August Felix of Orlando, Fla., died of head injuries.

ORLANDO, Fla. -- It was a balmy night, the sort that brings the homeless out from the shelters, when the police were summoned to America Street. On the driveway of a condo, just a few paces from the gutter, lay a dying man.

He looked to be 50-ish, and a resident of Orlando's streets, judging by the moldy jacket. And he'd been bludgeoned -- so badly bludgeoned that he could hardly move.

Before being rushed to the hospital, where he died of his head injuries, the man, August Felix, described his attackers. Young fellows did it, he whispered to the officers who got to him first.

Within three months, two 16-year-olds and three 15-year-olds had been charged with second-degree homicide in the March 26, 2006, attack. The motive? "I don't think there was a motive, other than, 'Let's beat someone up,' " said Sergeant Barbara Jones, a police spokeswoman.

That high school students had allegedly turned on a whim into executioners brought pause to city officials and advocates for the homeless, not just because the killing was unprovoked, but because it fit into a larger trend. There has been a nationwide surge in violence largely by teens and young adults against some of America's most vulnerable citizens.

A 2006 report by the National Coalition for the Homeless found 142 attacks last year against homeless people, 20 of which resulted in death -- a 65 percent increase from 2005, when 86 were violently assaulted, including 13 homicides.

The numbers are probably low because they only reflect the most egregious attacks reported in newspapers or by agencies that serve the homeless and some victims themselves, said Michael Stoops, acting executive director of the Washington-based coalition.

The trend is particularly troubling, he says, because such attacks no longer occur just in major cities on the East and West coasts, as was the case in the 1980s.

In its most recent study, "Hate, Violence, and Death on Main Street USA," the coalition documented attacks against the destitute in 62 communities last year in 26 states. Since 1999, such violence has occurred in 44 states and Puerto Rico, and in 200 communities nationwide.

An overwhelming majority of the attackers -- 88 percent -- were 25 or younger; 95 percent were male.

A bills to classify attacks against homeless people as hate crimes is moving through the Massachusetts Legislature. Similar bills are under consideration in California, Florida, Maryland, Nevada, and Texas.

But this type of attack hasn't gotten the attention it deserves from the public or law enforcement, Stoops said. "Homeless people are the newest minority group in America that is 'OK' to hate and hurt," he said. "It's as though, somehow, they're viewed as less deserving, less human than the rest of us."

Americans did pay attention to the story of 58-year-old Jacques Pierre, a homeless man who'd been sleeping on a bench on a college campus when three teenagers woke him up, taunted him, then nearly killed him with baseball bats.

That Jan. 12, 2006, ambush in Fort Lauderdale was filmed by a surveillance camera, and broadcast worldwide.

Such attacks have occurred elsewhere:

In Toms River, N.J., five high school students were charged with beating a 50-year-old homeless man nearly to death with pipes and baseball bats -- throwing hockey pucks at him for good measure -- as he slept in the woods.

In Butte, Mont., a 53-year-old homeless man was killed at a Greyhound bus depot because he refused to give another man a cigarette, according to court records. The victim's skull was fractured. The 22-year-old assailant received a 50-year prison sentence.

In Spokane, Wash., a one-legged, 50-year-old homeless man was set on fire in his wheelchair on a downtown street; he died of his burns. Police charged a 22-year-old man with first-degree murder.

While some investigators believe the attacks are random, Sergeant Richard Ring, who investigated the slaying of August Felix in Orlando last year, sees a more deep-seated problem.

"Our young people get prejudices from their parents in regard to homeless people," he said. "They don't identify with the homeless, and they don't seem to see them as important."

Homeless advocates also link the trend to the popularity of "Bumfights," a video series created in 2001 and sold on the Internet. The videos show homeless people battering one another for money.

Some local governments have adopted ordinances that restrict where and when the homeless can sleep, stroll, beg, eat, bathe, or do laundry. And this trend may have an unintended effect -- reinforcing negative stereotypes of homelessness, which contributes to the violence, some advocates say.

"When cities pass laws that target homeless people, they send a message to their communities that the homeless are not as valuable in the public eye as those with homes," says Tulin Ozdeger, a civil rights attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.