On a recent morning downtown, Democratic Rep. Wendell Gilliard was walking through the Meeting Street Manor neighborhood where he grew up. Nearby is the Crisis Ministries homeless shelter and a public housing complex. When Gilliard was a kid, homeless men and women would often show up at the door of his home asking for money, food, clothes, or water. His mother would always let them in, even if it was just to talk.
“She always taught us that we have to entertain and always care for the needy,” Gilliard said, dressed in a track suit, white sneakers, and a pair of Ray Bans. Last week, the lawmaker and former chemical plant operator introduced a package of legislation aimed at aiding the homeless population in South Carolina. The pre-filed bills come a month before the Legislature reconvenes in January.
Among the proposed new laws are practical measures and some that are more symbolic. For instance, one of the bills would allow restaurants to sidestep some health regulations so they could donate leftover food to local homeless shelters. Another would establish a legislative committee to research the state's homeless issues, and a third would merely urge federal, state, and local governments to work together on the issue.
Then there's this one: Gilliard wants to make it a hate crime to assault a homeless person. If someone did so they would spend 30 days behind bars, and if convicted on a second offense they'd serve a year.
“Nobody should ever be attacked, but those homeless people are being targeted because they're homeless,” Gilliard says. “They're being preyed upon because they're easy targets.”
It's not the first time the lawmaker has introduced such a measure. He'd watched a similar bill die in committee a couple years ago. He says opposition to it, though, never really rose to the philosophical level. Rather, he says, his efforts were just ignored.
“We pass bills about hunting deer — what time to hunt them, how many deer to kill, how many gators to kill — every year,” he says. “Sometimes we spend hours in the General Assembly talking about these issues. Then we get these things passed. Then when we talk about my bills, about helping human beings who are homeless, all of a sudden for the most part, most of my peers on the floor turn a deaf ear. We're elevating animals above human needs. We have to be better than that in government.”
Hate crime legislation hasn't traditionally found fertile soil in the Palmetto State's General Assembly. Advocates for LGBT issues have tried for years to pass statewide hate crime legislation for crimes based on sexual orientation. Those who oppose such legislation have said existing state laws are enough to prosecute people who commit crimes regardless of who the victim is. Others have asked why one victim of violence should earn a special status in the eyes of the law than another.
Republican Gov. Nikki Haley's administration has been resistant to the idea of state hate crimes laws.