Protections for the homeless are better today than yesterday.
A new law went into effect today that includes the homeless under the state's existing hate crimes act, and protecting the homeless will be part of the mission of the new Anti-Hate Crimes Task Force in Key West.
The state hate crimes act will increase criminal penalties for those who victimize people because they are homeless. For example, a second-degree felony could get bumped to a first-degree felony -- which could mean the difference between 15 and 30 years in prison. The law already protected people based on age, race, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation.
Jim Boyts, a formerly homeless man in Key West, was nearly killed in 2004 when he was beaten while sleeping in Mallory Square. Jeffrey Jay Carbonell is serving a 10-year prison term for the attack.
"A hate crime is a hate crime," Boyts said. "Be it skin color, religion, gay or homeless. We're all one human family and deserve to be treated right, so I'm pleased that the homeless are getting more protection. It's another tool."
The Rev. Steven Braddock, CEO of the Florida Keys Outreach Coalition for the Homeless, said he has been lobbying state legislators to include the homeless in the hate crimes act for years. The focus now needs to turn to Monroe County schools, Braddock said.
"This is a very positive step in the right direction, but there is still a lot to do," he said. "I think everyone agrees that we can address the problem through law enforcement and the Legislature, but it will only be fixed in our homes, schools and churches."
That sentiment was echoed at a recent anti-violence meeting at the Metropolitan Community Church. The meeting and the task force were sparked by a series of attacks on gay men.
Though the task force is being spearheaded primarily by gay community leaders -- Gay and Lesbian Community Center (GLCC) President Mike Mongo, "One Human Family" creator J.T. Thompson and Key West police Community Affairs Officer Steve Torrence -- it will be all-inclusive to benefit all residents.
Thompson, who works with the GLCC, homeless shelter and a wide array of other civic groups in Key West, said he has been an outspoken advocate for the inclusion of everyone in the task force.
"Preventing street violence applies to all people," Thompson said.
Mongo said the inclusion of the homeless was only natural.
"We have people who are homeless and gay come by our center all the time, and part of our mission at the GLCC is to serve those in need who are in trouble," he said. "This completely fits our description."
The task force is still in its infancy and what shape it will take and how it will be most effective is still being hammered out among members, but everyone seems to agree that diversity training for youth is the best place to start.
Torrence said he already has talked with Monroe County Schools Superintendent Joe Burke, who said he is working with teachers, student groups and the police on how a new diversity program will work.
"I'm pleased, but I don't know if it will make a big difference," Boyts said of the new law and task force. "People are brought up to hate things and it's going to take a lot to change that."
Boyts suffered multiple fractures to his face and head as well as permanent scars in the attack. He was airlifted to Baptist Hospital's trauma center in Miami, where he was in a coma for days.
"It's going to take more than a new law, newspaper articles and meetings," Boyts said. "Parents need to get together with the School Board, but it's a start. It's a good place to start."