Court Rules That Punishing Homeless People for Sleeping In Public Is Unconstitutional
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Idaho ruled that it is unconstitutional and cruel to punish homeless people for sleeping in the streets when no shelter is available.
Three judges of the court made the decision in response to a lawsuit brought by six homeless people earlier convicted for sleeping in public places in Boise, Idaho. The plaintiffs argued that their constitutional rights had been violated, having been convicted under two ordinances prohibiting sleeping in the open in the state.
The Ordinances Criminalize Poverty and Make Affordable Housing a Mere Dream to Poor People
“A municipality cannot criminalize such behavior consistently with the Eighth Amendment when no sleeping space is practically available in any shelter,” the judges wrote. “As long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.”
Advocates for homeless people sleeping in open streets or public buildings lauded the court for the judgment. They argue that the City of Boise cannot make such laws and expect them to last since the laws waste public funds, ignores root causes of homelessness, and punish poor people for remaining poor.
The government has intensified efforts to prosecute public sleepers as urban neighborhoods increasingly become gentrified. This pointed was noted by Maria Foscarinis, the executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. She says gentrification will make affordable housing a mere dream for the poor, and it creates a pressure to forcibly remove poor people from prominent city areas. Promoting gentrification leads to criminalization of public sleeping, she added.
A survey of 187 cities by Foscarinis’s group found that from 2006 to 2016, the number of bans on camping in public increased by 69 percent.
The Ninth Circuit is based in San Francisco, meaning the Boise ruling will apply to Idaho, California, Arizona and Washington among other areas covered by the court. To this extent, several cities in the affected areas have begun to review laws relating to homelessness for necessary modifications. Foscarinis disclosed that her group has identified over 20 other cities that may have to review their ordinances to comply with the Ninth Circuit’s ruling.
Many Homeless People Could Not Use Public Shelters Because Of Religious Restrictions
The six homeless people who brought the lawsuit for being convicted of violating city ordinances were cited between 2007 and 2009 when they lived in or around Boise. The city has three shelters for homeless people, but these are always filled to capacity and have rules that must be obeyed before admittance.
According to Judge Marsha S. Berzon, one of the panelists on the Ninth Circuit, many homeless people choose to sleep in the streets rather than in the shelters due to their difficult rules.
Some of these shelter rules regulated when people can check in and how long they have to stay. Two of the shelters do not allow people who have checked out to return there until 30 days have passed – unless they complete “an intensive, Christ-based residential recovery program,” according to Judge Berzon’s opinion.
The case has been closely watched around the country, and in 2015 then President Barack Obama filed a statement of interest saying that “punishing conduct that is a universal and unavoidable consequence of being human violates the Eighth Amendment.”