Justice Department Condemns Criminalization of Homelessness
On August 6, 2015, the Department of Justice (DOJ) put enforcement power behind longstanding federal policy against the criminalization of homelessness by filing a statement of interest brief in a case opposing a Boise, ID anti-camping ordinance.
The NLCHP case, filed in 2009, seeks to overturn a Boise ordinance which criminalizes sleeping in public, even when there are not enough shelter beds available to homeless individuals. Boise amended its ordinance in 2014 in response to the lawsuit, but continues to allow police to ticket homeless persons if any shelter beds are open, even if those beds are unavailable to individuals due to disability or religious objection, and although the total number of homeless people in Boise far exceeds the number of beds.
On August 14, 2015, Mic.com reported that,
“Over half a million people are homeless on any given night in the United States. Among them, close to a third spent the night outside of shelters, often exposed to the elements under bridges or on park benches.”
“The DOJ’s brief sends a strong signal to Boise and to communities across the country that homeless people do not lose their constitutional rights when they lose their homes. As U.S. courts and international human rights monitors have increasingly recognized, criminally punishing homeless people for life-sustaining behavior in the absence of alternatives is cruel, inhuman, and degrading.”
Said Eric Tars, Senior Attorney at the Law Center.
Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division said in a press release,
“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.”
According to Mic.com,
“The statement is good news for advocates for protecting the homeless, as it should have sway with courts and is a precedent of sorts for civil rights law. The DOJ rarely files these statements, and it’s a formal way of stating the government’s view on a disputed legal issue.”
“The war on homelessness can feel a bit like the war on drugs. Both seek to end a constant in human behavior by criminalizing them, and ultimately do little, if anything, to address the root cause of those behaviors.
But there is an alternative path, and in fact both the federal government and some local governments have been taking measures towards it: building permanent housing for the homeless and providing them with support to address the problems that uprooted them in the first place. Initiatives to house the homeless are the main reason the homeless population continued to decline even as the U.S. experienced its worst economy since the Great depression. Perhaps the new DOJ ruling will add some more moral weight to the case for helping the homeless rather than ostracizing them even further.”
The case goes before the court for a hearing on summary judgment on August 20.
Click here for the NLCHP press release.
Click here for the Mic.com article.
Click here for an August 14, 2015 NPR story on the DOJ statement.