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Bell v. City of Boise Lives On, Kind Of

fallen leavesRecently, House the Homeless discussed Bell v. City of Boise and its importance. Quick review: More than a decade ago, Los Angeles was sued over its severe anti-homeless ordinances. The outcome was awaited with great interest. If the city lost, then conditions would improve for people on the street.

If the city won, then the case would be appealed to the Supreme Court, which might engender some real fireworks. If it came to challenging the constitutionality of “breathing while homeless” laws, the American landscape could change radically. In due time, Judge Kim M. Wardlaw laid down words that would look good engraved in stone:

The Eighth Amendment prohibits the City from punishing involuntary sitting, lying, or sleeping on public sidewalks that is an unavoidable consequence of being human and homeless without shelter in the City of Los Angeles.

The U.S. Constitution may not be perfect, but it’s the best tool we have for securing liberty and justice for all. Judge Wardlaw coupled that basic fact with the realization that everybody’s got to be someplace, and while they’re there, they just might need to sit down, or even lie down and sleep. For people experiencing homelessness all across America, things were looking up. But the aftermath dragged on, and optimism was quenched when, subsequent to a compromise agreement, the judgment was vacated.

But Judge Wardlaw’s words were not forgotten. More recently, when Boise, Idaho, was sued for similar reasons, the Justice Department stepped in (critics would say “interfered”) by filing a statement of interest. It is the federal bureaucracy’s way of putting the city on notice—“We will be keeping an eye on you.” In its official communication, the Justice Department quoted Judge Wardlaw’s words, and the whole issue started to pick up momentum again.

Boise’s Version of the Truth

Associated Press writer Samantha Wright noted the total number of people charged with public camping in each of four consecutive years, ranging from 12 in 2012 to 293 in 2015. That is more than a 24-fold increase. To put it another way, for every one person cited with public camping in 2012, 24 were cited in 2015. To put it yet another way, that is 24 times as many. Clearly, some kind of escalation has taken place.

Yet, soon after the Justice Department declared its concern, the City of Boise reacted by saying they had gotten the wrong end of the stick. Wright explained:

The Department says it is opposing the Boise law that makes it a crime for homeless people to sleep or camp in public places because it unconstitutionally punishes them for being homeless. But city spokesman Mike Journee says the law was changed and police can no longer give tickets for camping if homeless shelters are full. And if there is room at a shelter, police will try to convince people to go there…The suit was originally brought by seven homeless people in 2009 who were cited under the law, even though there was no room for them at local shelters.

But two months later, it became obvious that the constitutionality of forbidding people to sleep would not see its day in court. Judge Ronald E. Bush of the U.S. District Court dismissed the lawsuit. He and the other Boise officials hold that the only people who have been punished for sleeping outside had refused to procure a shelter bed. In this version of reality, if no shelter space is available, the police don’t bother anybody.

The Future for Anti-Homeless Laws

Eric Tars is an attorney for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, representing the plaintiffs. He told journalist Frankie Barnhill that one reason the suit was dismissed was that “all but two of the plaintiffs are no longer homeless, so they don’t have a fear of being arrested for camping in public.” Which is ridiculous, because what about all the other people who are, currently, homeless? Besides, just letting time go by is a reprehensible way to run a legal case. Stall long enough, and everybody’s dead.

The director of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project, Sara Rankin, warned other cities not to become over-confident about their own anti-homeless laws, saying:

Cities would be very ill-advised to interpret the Bell v. Boise case as carte blanche to enact broad anti-camping ordinances. The reason for that is the decision in Bell v. Boise was not rendered on the merits.

Clearly, this issue will keep popping up over and over in different cities until somebody makes a definitive ruling that is an irresistible call to action. In the meantime, anyone who cares about housing or otherwise helping the homeless could start by learning just what the laws are in her or his own city. It might be enlightening.

Reactions?

Source: “City Weighs In On DOJ Criticism Of Boise Homeless Camping Law,” boisestatepublicradio.org, 08/07/15
Source: “Advocacy Group Responds To Dismissal Of Boise Homeless Case,” boisestatepublicradio.org, 10/01/15
Source: “Boise Homeless Case Dismissed, What Happens Next?,” boisestatepublicradio.org, 10/02/15
Image by Thomas Quine