Earlier this month, the Ninth Circuit issued a positive decision in the Law Center’s anti-camping/sleeping challenge, Bell v. City of Boise. In partnership with Idaho Legal Aid Services and Latham & Watkins, the Law Center brought the case in October 2009 on behalf of seven homeless plaintiffs in Boise, Idaho who had been cited for sleeping outdoors despite a lack of available shelter. The suit alleged that the city’s enforcement of two local camping and sleeping ordinances against the respective homeless persons was unconstitutional, constituted cruel and unusual punishment, and resulted in criminalizing homelessness.
Despite the fact that communities all over the country lack adequate affordable housing and shelter space, cities are continuing to penalize people forced to live on our streets and in public spaces. The Law Center’s 2011 report, Criminalizing Crisis, summarizes the results of a national survey by the Law Center on the enforcement of criminalization measures across the country, and concludes that criminalization measures do nothing to solve the problem of homelessness. Instead, they frequently perpetuate homelessness, place unnecessary burdens on our criminal justice system, and violate homeless individuals’ civil and human rights.
According to a government report released in 2006 — the most current data available at the time the suit was brought — the number of homeless residents in Boise ranged from 2,000 to 4,500 people. However, Boise only had 310 year-round emergency shelter beds and overflow or cold-weather space for an additional 400 people, leaving more than hundreds of individuals experiencing homelessness without shelter. Despite the lack of available shelter, the Boise Police Department was issuing hundreds of citations to homeless individuals for sleeping outside under the city’s anti- camping and disorderly conduct laws. One plaintiff in the Bell v. City of Boise case served 90 days in jail for his citation under the anti-camping law, and plaintiffs were also charged fees by the county for the time of their incarceration.
The district court dismissed the suit, largely on procedural grounds. The Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded to the district court for proceedings on the merits. While this is a procedural decision, it is still an interim success for the Law Center on an important case.