BOISE (CN) - Every night in Boise thousands of homeless people face the threat of jail and fines they can't afford, just because they have nowhere to sleep. Homeless people say Boise is "criminalizing homelessness," threatening them with jail and fines for disorderly conduct "merely for sleeping in public" or "sitting or talking with friends in public places - activities non-homeless residents have the freedom to engage in without fear of police interference."
Seven people who have been cited for this say city police are "aggressively and selectively" enforcing the city's anti-camping and disorderly conduct laws "in order to force [homeless] individuals to make the untenable choice between criminal convictions and leaving the city."
Boise in recent years has been touted as an up-and-coming, pleasant place to live. U.S. News and World Report ranked it fourth this year in its Top 10 list of "best places to live" in the United States.
But the homeless people say that "anywhere from 2,000 to 4,500 people" are homeless on any given night and Boise area shelters have beds for only 300 of them, with space for another 400 to sleep on the floor. They say the economic crisis has forced many people to live on the streets for the first time.
Lawrence Smith says he was cited for disorderly conduct for sleeping in an alley behind a homeless shelter. Smith says he does not know where he will sleep from night to night and fears additional citations and fines he cannot afford. "He hopes to get his bicycle fixed so that he can go to the foothills outside the city limits to sleep without police interference or the threat of citation," according to the complaint.
Boise's prohibits sleeping in a public place at any time; the homeless people say this law "explicitly ban(s) a necessary function of life."
The problem will grow because with "the heavy job losses spurred by the global economic crisis, the number of homeless individuals and families in the Boise area will likely increase," according to the complaint.
The homeless people accuse the City of Boise, its police department and police chief with a "deliberate indifference" to the rights of homeless people.
The plaintiffs seek a restraining order and injunction preventing the enforcement of the camping ordinance, an order compelling the city to clear of the records of any homeless individuals cited or arrested and charged under the ordinances and repayment of the fines they paid.
Lead counsel for the plaintiffs - two women and five men - is Howard Belodoff with Idaho Legal Aid Services.
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