So far this year three homeless men have met violent deaths in Broward County, two in savage beatings and a third who drowned after he was pushed off a New River bridge.
In each case police arrested the suspected killers. But none of the men charged in these deaths would have faced prosecution under the state's much-ballyhooed new hate crime law designed to protect the homeless.
Why? Those charged in the three deaths also are homeless.
To some who opposed granting the homeless the same protected status given to race, religion and sexual orientation, the three recent homicides underscore the law's irrelevance.
"Ninety percent of all crimes against the homeless are committed by other homeless," said Broward public defender Howard Finkelstein. "That's why this law was a bad joke, and nothing but politics. It doesn't hurt, but it will not improve the situation one iota."
The bill's chief sponsor, state Rep. Ari Porth, D-Coral Springs, who is also a Broward County prosecutor, acknowledges that the law "won't be used all that often."
But the law, which takes effect Oct. 1, also had plenty of backers, including the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, the homeless advisory board to the Palm Beach County commission and other advocacy groups.
Under the new law, a finding that a crime was motivated by hate could enhance the punishment. For example, a second-degree felony becomes a first-degree felony, with the maximum prison sentence increased from 15 to 30 years.
Living unprotected on the street or in a makeshift camp in the woods is dangerous. Many homeless men and women are also plagued by addiction and mental health problems, according to advocates.
"It is not a safe situation, and that's why we're working to end homelessness," said Claudia Tuck, director of Palm Beach County's human services division.
Public outrage over the Jan. 12, 2006, beating death of Norris Gaynor helped passage of the law. Gaynor, 45, a homeless man, was attacked near Fort Lauderdale's Esplanade Park by three teenagers. The killing was caught on a security camera, and all three are now serving prison sentences for their roles in the attack.
Leading the movement to pass the hate crime measure were Porth and Broward Sheriff Al Lamberti, who assigned a top commander to work nearly full-time on crafting the law and to lobby legislators.
Lamberti said he became concerned about the issue in part because of the state's ranking as a leader in such attacks. The National Coalition for the Homeless has reported that Florida, which is No. 4 in population, consistently ranks No. 1 in attacks on homeless people.
In 2008, the last year for which figures are available, 30 hate crimes, including three fatal attacks, against the homeless were recorded in Florida, the coalition said. There are no numbers on the crimes committed by one homeless person on another, however. And often someone involved in a fight with, or an assault by, another homeless person is not going to report the crime anyway, said Finkelstein.
But deaths do get recorded.
"This is the first time that I can remember we've had homeless on homeless [killings] like this," said Francis Sousa, a spokesman for the police in Fort Lauderdale, where two of the deaths occurred.
Sean Cononie, a veteran advocate who runs the Homeless Voice shelter in Hollywood, said, "To me, it's a new trend, and it's something I'm concerned about."
The first of this year's homeless deaths came in January, when police said Robert Lee Merritt, 28, was knocked into the New River while drinking vodka with several other men on the Andrews Avenue bridge. They had been playing a drinking game called "When push comes to shove," said police.
Billy Tyner, 47, later was charged with manslaughter in Merritt's death.
In May, the body of Bradly Schmidt, 45, was found next to the Government Center building in downtown Fort Lauderdale. Two men, Jimmy D. Graviett, 39, and Robert Gallant, 32, were charged with beating him to death. They are charged with second-degree murder.
And on July 3, Joseph G. Charlton, 55, was killed in Hollywood during an argument with Robert Stone over a cigarette, police said. They said Stone, 37, clubbed Charlton with a metal pipe. He is being held on a charge of second-degree murder.
"The point here is that we have a record number of homeless people on the streets on South Florida, and fewer numbers of people to help them," said Laura Hansen, director of the Broward Coalition for the Homeless. "And the streets are a bad place to be."