The U.S. Justice Department on Thursday urged a judge to block enforcement of an anti-camping ordinance in Boise, Idaho making the assertion you can’t arrest someone for not complying with a law they have no ability to comply with. The homeless are frequently arrested for loitering or vagrancy but the fact is they have no where to go and now the DOJ wants to use that fact to give our homeless friends legal standing.
Boise, Idaho passed an ordinance that banned sleeping or camping in public places. The DOJ says ordinances like these criminalize homelessness itself in situations where people simply have nowhere else to sleep. From the DOJ’s filing:
When adequate shelter space exists, individuals have a choice about whether or not to sleep in public. However, when adequate shelter space does not exist, there is no meaningful distinction between the status of being homeless and the conduct of sleeping in public. 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.
The DOJ argues laws like this violate the Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment, making them unconstitutional. It’s been more than 20 years since the DOJ has weighed in on this area of of law. The fact they have now is a warning to other cities across America to treat the homelessness more humanely.
The lawsuit was originally filed by National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. Eric Tars, a senior attorney for the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, lifting the ban on camping or sleeping outside won’t stop criminalization of homelessness. Last year the NLCHP surveyed 187 cities between 2011 and 2014 and found, 34 percent had citywide laws banning camping in public. Another 43 percent prohibited sleeping in vehicles, and 53 percent banned sitting or lying down in certain public places. They hope to prove these laws criminalize the kind of activities that are arguably fundamental to human existence and are directed at people that don’t have the ability to comply.
Shortly after the DOJ filed the paperwork the Founder of Spread Peace USA, Chris Tinney, came out in support of the filing. Tinney said he hopes other cities take notice and not only look at their vagrancy laws but also other ordinances that are discriminating against the homeless. Tinney says, “33 cities have now made it illegal to share food with the homeless, 40,000 homeless people will die this year in America. We still have a long way to go”. He went on to add, “the truth is city leaders don’t want to homeless population to be visible. They want them to go live in camps or hide in the park so they can pretend the problem doesn’t exist because if they admitted it existed they would have to do something about it”.