TALLAHASSEE — This week it will become a hate crime to attack a homeless person with prejudice in Florida, meaning a crime like the fatal bludgeoning of a Vietnam veteran last year will come with steeper consequences.
Florida, which has led the nation in these attacks four of the last five years, will be largest of five states and the District of Columbia to pass such a law.
But a leading advocacy group says it is unsure whether the laws will do any good.
The National Coalition for the Homeless doesn't oppose the laws.
But the organization first wants the federal government to begin collecting data to help determine what will work.
"It's premature to start solving the problem until you know what the extent of it is," said Neil Donovan, the coalition's executive director. "If we're not sure where and how the problem has arisen and how broad it is, it's hard to start to address it."
Other advocates say there's no need to wait because publicity surrounding hate crime laws can be a deterrent itself.
The slaying of the homeless veteran, Daniel Case, on Florida's west coast is an example of that brutality.
Two street gang members were charged with wielding a baseball bat and golf club to beat him while he slept in a lawn chair behind a Bradenton business.
Florida's new law adds homeless people to an existing hate crimes statute that increases penalties for attacks motivated by race, color, ancestry, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, mental or physical disability or advanced age.
Case was one of five homeless people murdered in hate attacks against the homeless last year in Florida, according to an annual report issued by Donovan's Washington, D.C., coalition in August.
Eleven other homeless people were attacked in Florida for a total of 16 crimes.
That was second to California's 27 attacks, but Florida had led the nation in each of the four prior years.
The coalition detailed 117 hate attacks across the United States in 2009 including 43 fatalities, the second highest toll in the 11 years the coalition has been collecting data — 59 percent more than the 27 deaths in 2008.
The report probably misses many attacks because the organization has a small staff that relies on Internet searches and tips, Donovan said.
That's why he and other advocates are lobbying for bills in Congress that would add hate attacks against the homeless to crime information the FBI routinely collects from law enforcement agencies across the nation.