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LOS ANGELES – Sobs overcome Susanne McGraham-Paisley when she thinks about her mentally ill brother who lived for years on a city sidewalk — John McGraham died when a man doused him with gasoline and set him ablaze.

She believes the murder was spurred by a warped hatred of homeless people, yet she has managed to find forgiveness for Ben Martin, a former barber who has pleaded guilty to the October 2008 killing.

“It’s awful, when I think of my brother burning to death…,” she said amid tears, “… just awful. Ben Martin was sick, mentally sick. He had a thing against homeless people and he took it out on my brother.”

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Martin, 31, faces life in prison without parole when he’s sentenced on Wednesday.

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McGraham-Paisley and many homeless advocates argue McGraham’s murder should be classified a hate crime, saying these type of attacks show bias just like racially or ethnically motivated crimes and should carry stiffer prison terms.

But as states grapple with budget cuts and turn to releasing nonviolent offenders to reduce prison costs, advocates are seeking innovative ways to protect the homeless.

In California, which ranks second in the nation in homeless crimes, an Assembly bill would give homeless people, or public interest groups on their behalf, the right to seek redress by suing their attackers for civil rights violations.

With prisons already overcrowded, “the appetite for any kind of penalty enhancement is limited,” says Will Shuck, spokesman for Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal, the Long Beach Democrat who authored the bill.

“This is a way around the physical problem that still addresses the issue,” he said.

In Los Angeles County, the sheriff’s department has started tracking crime against the homeless. More law enforcement agencies plan to join the effort while training police officers to be more sensitive to transients.

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Outreach teams of formerly homeless youths will go into schools to teach about the causes of homelessness. The homeless have also been included in the county’s anti-prejudice programs.

“It’s important to provide protections any way you can,” said Robin Toma, executive director of the county’s Commission on Human Relations.

Other cities and states including ClevelandSeattle and Alaska have designated homeless people as a protected class, alongside other vulnerable populations such as the elderly and disabled. This type of classification can make sentences harsher.

Pressure for homeless hate-crime laws, which have been adopted in Maine, Maryland and Washington D.C., has been mounting in recent years as attacks against transients started rising with the popularity of videos called “Bumfights.” Producers ply homeless people with alcohol in return for doing humiliating acts on videotape.

In 2007, the National Coalition for the Homeless reported 160 attacks against homeless people — including 28 fatalities — up from 142 in 2006. The number of attacks dropped in 2008, after major retailers removed the DVDs, but there may now be a similar threat.

A European Internet video game called “Bumrise,” which debuted in the U.S. in February, allows players to assume the role of a homeless character moving up from a cardboard box to a Manhattan penthouse by pickpocketing, collecting cans, fighting and panhandling.

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“This all kind of normalizes abuse toward a population that is just so unprotected,” said Neil Donovan, the coalition’s executive director.

Still, many say attacks against the homeless are hard to classify as hate-fuelled violence because the crimes do not involve derogatory symbols or epithets. Others point to homelessness as a transitory state, unlike race, gender or ethnicity.

The key element in homeless crime, they say, is the victim’s weakness.

“They are crimes of opportunity — you do it because it’s easy,” said Mark Potok, spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups. “These crimes are, in effect, a way of making the powerless feel powerful.”

Homeless people say safety is a constant concern. Many buddy up at night or arm themselves with knives or boxcutters. Joe Thomas, a 60-year-old Vietnam veteran who’s been living on the streets of downtown LA for the past year, said he seeks out benches in well lit areas.

“You have people who have a thing about people being homeless,” he said. “We had kids coming down here about three months ago, hitting people in the head with a baseball bat.”

Deanna Weakly said women are particularly vulnerable. She spent the last four years homeless before obtaining a federally sponsored apartment last month.

With far fewer shelter beds for women, security guards often demand sex or food in exchange for a cot, she said, so she spent nights catnapping on buses, then moved into a county hospital lobby. If men made advances, she screamed at the top of her lungs to scare them off.

“I’d be wandering around at 3-4 in the morning with my bags, looking for a place to sleep. I was always kind of ready to give up my life,” the 50-year-old former real estate agent said. “I always had to have my guard up.”

For McGraham-Paisley, her older brother’s death has made her painfully aware of the plight of homeless people and what she says is a woeful lack of compassion for them.

“My brother did not make a choice to be homeless. He was mentally ill. We didn’t abandon him. We tried to get him help. We’d contact agencies and they said they’d go out there, but we’d never hear back,” she said. “That person is a human being. There has to be a solution.”

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