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Will Nationwide Change Start in Idaho?

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Faceless force: police officers strut between Austin’s homeless shelter and Salvation Army building.

On August 6, something interesting and potentially very significant happened. A federal court case filed in the District of Idaho in 2009 is just now being considered, and the Department of Justice filed a “statement of interest” based on the premise that people experiencing homelessness are being unconstitutionally punished for sleeping in public places, even when no shelter beds or any other alternatives are available to them.

The case, titled Bell v. City of Boise et al., was brought by several homeless plaintiffs who were convicted of violating a Boise ordinance that forbids “camping” in public. In this instance, camping does not mean setting up a tent and a barbecue pit and a gravity shower and a volleyball net. It means sleeping, an activity that every human being has to engage in, which means the law makes as much sense as convicting people for breathing.

The Justice Department calls sleeping “conduct that is a universal and unavoidable consequence of being human,” and references the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which says that Americans should not be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. In effect, anti-camping ordinances criminalize people for being homeless. These days, it is certainly not unusual, but it is undeniably cruel.

Who Are the Criminals?

The parties responsible for the economic meltdown have not spent a single night in jail, or for that matter, a single night sleeping behind a dumpster. The parties responsible for starting and perpetuating wars for the further obscene enrichment of billionaires have not attended a single Veterans Stand Down looking for a toothbrush or a pair of socks. Yet thousands of Americans have acquired criminal records because they have to sleep someplace, and thousands more live in daily fear of being punished as criminals because of the human physiological imperative known as sleep. Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, wrote:

Criminally prosecuting those individuals for something as innocent as sleeping, when they have no safe, legal place to go, violates their constitutional rights…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.

The lawsuit that is finally getting its day in court was originally filed by Idaho Legal Aid Services and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP), which issued a report last year announcing the result of a three-year survey that gathered information from 187 American cities. They found that 34 percent (a solid one-third) of these municipalities have laws that ban public camping (also known as sleeping). Almost half—43 percent—prohibit sleeping in vehicles, which is about as senseless as a law can be. Who in their right mind believes that sleeping in a vehicle is worse, for either the homeless person or the general public, than the other alternatives?

Criminalizing Homelessness

As of last year, the agencies responsible for counting people experiencing homelessness came up with 153,000 to represent the number of unsheltered homeless people in the United States on any night of the year. In the main, these unsheltered sleepers are Americans. Some are very young children, whose chances of actually learning anything in school are gravely reduced. Some are teens, who are at risk for more kinds of damage than the average housed person can even imagine. Some are fathers with intense and undeserved feelings of personal failure. Some are mothers whose desperation occasionally makes sordid headlines.

Some are women escaped from domestic situations so violently abusive that even the streets seem like a better deal. Some are mentally ill people for whom the world is a vast unrelenting puzzle. Some are sick and disabled people who would barely be able to take care of themselves even indoors, much less out in the wild. Some are veterans who made a good-faith bargain with the government that was only kept on one side. Some are elderly people who worked hard all their lives and ended up with less than nothing.

And we call ourselves the greatest country on earth.

(…more on this court case next time…)


Source: “Justice Department Files Brief to Address the Criminalization of Homelessness,” Justice.gov, 08/06/15
Source: “It’s unconstitutional to ban the homeless from sleeping outside, the federal government says,” WashingtonPost.com, 08/13/15
Image by Richard R. Troxell