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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, August 21, 2015 - Volume 43 Issue 34
It's OK to sleep on the park bench, DOJ says in landmark ruling for homeless
Section One
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It's OK to sleep on the park bench, DOJ says in landmark ruling for homeless

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

Cities may not enact ordinances forbidding people to sleep in public places, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) said in an August 13 statement of interest.

The statement was filed in the case Bell v. City of Boise, in which a group of homeless people filed a federal lawsuit after being arrested for camping and sleeping on city grounds.

The plaintiffs claim the sleeping and camping ban violates their Eighth Amendment rights against cruel and unusual punishment.

DOJ agreed in a strongly worded statement intervening in the case.

'When adequate shelter space exists, individuals have a choice about whether or not to sleep in public,' the DOJ statement said.

'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.'

While laws restricting use of public space by homeless people are common in U.S. cities, the constitutionality of such measures is still considered unsettled. By weighing in on this case, DOJ seems to be warning cities to treat their homeless residents more humanely.

'It's huge,' said Eric Tars, senior attorney for the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, which originally filed the lawsuit in cooperation with Idaho Legal Aid.

'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 added.

'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.'

In a 2014 report, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty found that 53% of the 187 U.S. cities surveyed had laws banning people from sitting or lying down in public spaces.

Of the cities surveyed, 34% had laws banning camping in public places, and 43% prohibit sleeping in vehicles.

The federal government estimates that there were about 153,000 unsheltered homeless on the street in the U.S. any given night of 2014.

'Homelessness never left town because somebody gave it a ticket,' Tars said. 'The only way to end homelessness is to make sure everybody has access to affordable, decent housing.'

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