DOJ Says It’s Unconstitutional To Ban The Homeless From Sleeping Outside
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Many cities with a homeless problem have responded by passing laws that crack down on camping or sleeping in public places. In some places, they’ve effectively criminalized homelessness. Well, now the Obama administration is weighing in, arguing that for those who have no choice, sleeping in public is not a crime. NPR’s Carrie Johnson reports.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Seven homeless people in Boise, Idaho, are suing the city to overturn a ban on camping and sleeping because they’ve been punished under the local ordinances. This month, the U.S. Justice Department decided it wanted to use the Boise case to send this message.
VANITA GUPTA: Making it a crime for people who are homeless to sleep in public places when there’s insufficient shelter space in a city really is a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.
JOHNSON: Vanita Gupta leads the civil rights unit at Justice. She says handing out tickets and fines for an innocent activity like sleeping in public ties up courts and jails, and advocates say that pushing homeless people into the justice system is counterproductive. That’s because having a criminal record hurts their chances when they apply for housing and jobs. Eric Tars works at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. He’s involved in the Boise case too.
ERIC TARS: Most homeless people aren’t criminals, but if you criminalize the simple acts that we all do every day to survive – sleeping, eating, even going to the bathroom – then you make homeless people into criminals, and then you have the criminal justice system dealing with a social problem.
JOHNSON: Tars says the number of ordinances that make it a crime to sleep, sit on the sidewalk or panhandle has gone up by double digits in the past three years. And he says the Justice Department filing in the Boise case could have wide impact since big cities, including Los Angeles, are still figuring out their approach.
TARS: The DOJ’s brief sends a really strong signal to the city of Boise and to communities across the country that homeless people do not lose their constitutional rights when they lose their homes.
For the entire article and audio interview: http://www.npr.org/2015/08/14/432280606/doj-says-its-unconstitutional-to-ban-the-homeless-from-sleeping-outside
Thursday, August 6, 2015 doj.gov
The Department of Justice filed a statement of interest today arguing that making it a crime for people who are homeless to sleep in public places, when there is insufficient shelter space in a city, unconstitutionally punishes them for being homeless. The statement of interest was filed in federal district court in Idaho in Bell v. City of Boise et al., a case brought by homeless plaintiffs who were convicted under Boise ordinances that criminalize sleeping or camping in public.
As stated by the Justice Department in its filing, “[i]t should be uncontroversial that punishing conduct that is a universal and unavoidable consequence of being human violates the Eighth Amendment. . . Sleeping is a life-sustaining activity—i.e., it must occur at some time in some place. If a person literally has nowhere else to go, then enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance against that person criminalizes her for being homeless.”
“Many homeless individuals are unable to secure shelter space because city shelters are over capacity or inaccessible to people with disabilities,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division. “Criminally prosecuting those individuals for something as innocent as sleeping, when they have no safe, legal place to go, violates their constitutional rights. Moreover, enforcing these ordinances is poor public policy. Needlessly pushing homeless individuals into the criminal justice system does nothing to break the cycle of poverty or prevent homelessness in the future. Instead, it imposes further burdens on scarce judicial and correctional resources, and it can have long-lasting and devastating effects on individuals’ lives.”
“No one wants people to sleep on sidewalks or in parks, particularly not our veterans, or young people, or people with mental illness,” said Director Lisa Foster of the Office for Access to Justice. “But the answer is not to criminalize homelessness. Instead, we need to work with our local government partners to provide the services people need, including legal services, to obtain permanent and stable housing.”
More than 1 million persons are served in HUD-supported emergency, transitional and permanent housing programs each year. The total number of persons who experience homelessness may be twice as high. There are four federally defined categories under which individuals and families may qualify as homeless: 1) literally homeless; 2) imminent risk of homelessness; 3) homeless under other Federal statues; and 4) fleeing/attempting to flee domestic violence.
Where Can Individuals Find Assistance?
Individuals looking for assistance can:
- Find resources for homeless persons, including, youth, veterans, and the chronically homeless
- Find rental, homebuyer, and homeowner assistance
- Find help for victims of foreclosure and Hurricane Sandy and for persons living with HIV/AIDS
* * * HOMELESS DOES NOT MEAN VOTELESS * * *
Homeless People’s Voting Rights – http://www.nationalhomeless.org/projects/vote/court.html