In a relatively obscure case from Boise, Idaho, the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a brief that undermines what many cities around the country have done: criminalized being homeless.
The case centers around an ordinance in Boise, Idaho – although many cities in the United States have a similar law – that bans sleeping or camping in public places. The Department of Justice argues that such laws can make being homeless a criminal offense, which would violate the Eighth Amendment.
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. Sleep 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.
“It’s huge,” Eric Tars, senior attorney for the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, told the Washington Post.
The DOJ’s filing in the case is a clear warning to other cities that laws such as Boise’s are in direct opposition to the goals of caring for the vulnerable in this country.
“Homelessness is just becoming more visible in communities, and when homelessness becomes more visible, there’s more pressure on community leaders to do something about it,” Tars told the Post. “And rather than actually examining what’s the best thing to do about homelessness, the knee-jerk response – as with so many other things in society – is ‘we’ll address this social issue with the criminal justice system.'”