Four years ago, I wrote an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times (October 14, 2008) in response to a vicious hate crime in Los Angeles.
John Robert McGraham had been homeless on the streets of a mid-Wilshire neighborhood for years. In late 2008, a man tossed a bucket of gasoline on him and set him on fire with an emergency road flare. He was burned alive.
Candlelight vigils and outcries from political and community leaders followed this horrible murder. “How could this be?” they asked. “We must never allow this to happen again!” Words, and more words, spewed from the mouths of the leaders of our sympathetic community. “No one should ever experience such an atrocity!”
Yet, in the aftermath of McGraham’s death, two California Governors, Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and Jerry Brown (D), vetoed proposed hate crime laws (introduced by Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal, D-Long Beach) that could have protected our homeless neighbors from experiencing this sort of violence in the future.
Should we be surprised that, two days after Christmas and four years after McGraham was murdered with gasoline and a flare, another person living on the streets was set on fire in Los Angeles County?
Violet is 67-years-old, and has been homeless for ten years. On December 27th, she was resting on the San Fernando Valley bus bench where she typically spent the night when she was doused in a flammable liquid. She is currently in critical, but stable, condition.
The police say the man accused of harming her was mentally ill. But shouldn’t everyone who commits such violent crimes against innocent, vulnerable people be considered mentally ill? Who in their right mind would decide to torch another human being, especially someone as fragile and elderly as Violet?
Does labeling this crime an act of mental illness allow our society to pardon itself from such inhumane violence? I certainly hope we have not grown callous with such crimes committed against our vulnerable population.
Critics of hate crime laws would say that even if there was a law to protect Violet, it might not have stopped a mentally ill man from setting her on fire. Of course, laws against murder do not always prevent killing from occurring either, but we have them all the same. Our laws are an indication of how civil and just our society has become.
Clearly, the most compassionate response to preventing hate crimes against people who are homeless is to help such individuals end their homelessness. If Violet had been safely sleeping in her own bed, in her own secure home, she would not have been nearly as vulnerable to potential violence.
Local community leaders understand this, and have worked hard over the past few years to address our region’s homelessness. Ending homelessness also means ending hate crimes against our homeless neighbors.
This is why the United Way of Greater Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce formed “Home For Good,” a community initiative to coordinate the region’s resources to end homelessness. Over 100 regional community leaders have signed on to support this effort.
Los Angeles County has expanded its Project 50 endeavor to house hundreds of our most vulnerable homeless neighbors in numerous communities, and has expanded to address veteran homelessness.
27 southeastern cities and unincorporated areas within the area of the Gateway Cities Council of Governments have established an aggressive homelessness reduction campaign, concentrating on areas with high densities of homelessness.
These bold efforts are attempts to end homelessness in our communities and compassionately house our neighbors, who have ended up on the streets because of unemployment, chronic illnesses, battles with mental health and substance abuse, inability to cope with life after serving in our armed forces, or simply a lack of family support network.
With the lack of hate crime laws to protect people who are homeless, these community efforts have, intentionally or not, become a solution to hate crimes against our homeless neighbors that are occurring on our region’s streets.
Can we stop mentally disturbed people from hunting down our weak neighbors on the streets? We may not be able to change what’s in their hearts, but we can prevent their actions by permanently housing our neighbors languishing on our streets.
Photo by Shawn Carpenter.