Homeless in Boise at Heart of New DOJ Filing

      BOISE (CN) – The Department of Justice filed a Statement of Interest Thursday that supports homeless people who sued Boise, Idaho after being arrested for sleeping in public.
     Janet Bell and five others sued Boise and its police department in Federal Court in 2009 after they were arrested for “camping” on public property.
     Bell says they sometimes have no choice but to violate two Boise laws that prohibit camping on streets, in parks, or in public areas at any time, and prohibits sleeping in public as “disorderly conduct.”
     “The defendants have used these laws to cite and arrest individuals who cannot avoid violating these laws because they are homeless,” the complaint states. “In effect, defendants have ‘criminalized’ homelessness and these laws violate the requirements of the U.S. Constitution.”
     (The lawsuit recapitulates Victor Hugo’s statement: “The law in its majesty forbids both rich and poor from sleeping under bridges.”)
     Bell says Boise’s laws violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment and excessive fines, because their homelessness forces them to break the law and suffer the legal consequences.
     The Department of Justice agrees.
     In its 17-page statement, the Justice Department “encourages” the court to follow Jones v. City of Los Angeles, (444 F.3d 1118 (9th Cir. 2006) (vacated after settlement, 505 F.3d 1006 (9th Cir. 2007))), which held that enforcement of anti-camping ordinances may violate the Eighth Amendment on nights when there is not enough shelter.
     Boise calls reliance on the Jones ruling “heavily misplaced, factually unsupported, and immaterial to this case.”
     The Department of Justice says it filed the statement based on a “significant dispute between the parties on the applicability of Jones and conflicting lower court case law, and to make clear that Jones framework is the appropriate legal framework for analyzing plaintiffs’ Eighth Amendment claims.”
     The filing by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division states: “The court should consider whether conforming one’s conduct to the ordinance is possible for people who are homeless. If sufficient shelter space is unavailable because a) there are inadequate beds for the entire population, or b) there are restrictions on those beds that disqualify certain groups of homeless individuals (e.g. because of disability access or exceeding maximum stay requirements), then it would be impossible for some homeless individuals to comply with these ordinances. … In those circumstances enforcement of the ordinances amounts to the criminalization of homelessness, in violation of the Eighth Amendment.”
     A call to the Boise City Attorney’s Office was returned by Mike Journee, a spokesman for Mayor Dave Bieter.
     “The basic premise behind the argument that there is no room in the shelters is not true,” Journee said. “Our law enforcement officers, who deal with the homeless on a regular basis, check in daily with a dispatcher who has a direct line to service providers, so they are aware and understand what services area available, so they know exactly where to send them. It is seldom that the shelters are full. It has to be an extreme weather event for that to happen.
     “Second, there is a provision in our ordinance that states that if those facilities are full, law enforcement will not ticket anyone in the city for camping. That is in our ordinance.”
     The plaintiffs dispute that.
     Their lawsuit states that the Boise Police Department “does not monitor to confirm whether or not the shelters are actually full on a given night. Officers cite individuals without checking on the status of shelters.”
     The plaintiffs’ attorney Howard Belodoff, and attorneys with co-counsel National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty could not be reached for comment Thursday.
     A spokesman for Boise’s most well-known shelter, Boise Rescue Mission, said the facility never turns anyone away, but that room can sometimes come at a premium.
     “We never turn anyone away because of space,” said Jason Billester, the mission’s vice president of development. “And to accommodate the increasing needs, we added a 15-bed dorm across the street. We had women and children sleeping on the floor and had about 30 men sleeping on the floor at our River of Life Men’s Shelter. We have a good relationship with our friends at the fire department – they understand we can be overcrowded.”
     Billester says the mission receives no local, state or federal funding and meets its annual $5.8 million budget mostly through community donations, which account for about 70 percent of the budget.
     He says the mission provides “a safe night of shelter” for about 346 men, women and children on any given night.
     Boise Rescue Mission President and CEO Rev. Bill Roscoe said reasons for homelessness are many, but that the public must stop handing out dollar bills.
     “Drinking, drug abuse, untreated mental illness and a clear ‘don’t want your help’ attitude are the primary factors,” Roscoe said in an email. “At the Boise Rescue Mission … help for all of these problems is available, except for the last. No one can force an attitude.
     “I appreciate the mayor’s concern and his efforts to ‘solve the problem’ but until people stop handing people cash on the street corner and bringing food and clothing to an underpass living room, those who ‘don’t like the rules’ at the shelters will continue to live in the cold and the snow, wasting their lives. Help is available. A drowning person has to grasp the life preserver.”
     The Justice Department’s statement reiterates doubts that there is enough room for the homeless in Boise, rejects the idea that people who don’t want help are the only ones sleeping under bridges and in parks, and says that criminalization of homelessness serves no practical purpose.
     “Criminalizing public sleeping in cities with insufficient housing and support for homeless individuals does not improve public safety outcomes or reduce the factors that contribute to homelessness,” the Justice Department said. “As noted by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, ‘rather than helping people to regain housing, obtain employment, or access needed treatment and service, criminalization creates a costly revolving door that circulates individuals experiencing homelessness from the street to the criminal justice system and back.”

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