A federal appeals court has ruled that prosecuting homeless people for sleeping on the streets when there is no shelter available is a form of cruel and unusual punishment that violates the Constitution.
The court ruling applies to California and all areas in the western portion of the country covered by the Ninth Circuit, which is based in San Francisco.
The case stems from two ordinances in Boise, Idaho, that make it a crime to sleep or camp in buildings, streets and other public places. Six homeless people who had been convicted under the laws sued the city in 2009, saying their constitutional rights had been violated.
Can’t ‘Criminalize … Sleeping’
After years of legal wrangling, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit said in a 32-page opinion last Tuesday that Boise’s ordinances “criminalize the simple act of sleeping outside on public property, whether bare or with a blanket or other basic bedding.” The panel added that “a municipality cannot criminalize such behavior consistently with the Eighth Amendment when no sleeping space is practically available in any shelter.”
In their summary of the opinion, the judges wrote, “As long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.”
These issues have taken on increased significance as urban neighborhoods gentrify, said Maria Foscarinis, the executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, a Washington nonprofit that helped argue the Boise case.
Camping Bans Increase
From 2006 to 2016, the number of bans on camping in public increased by 69 percent and bans on sleeping in public places increased by 31 percent.
In December, the Department of Housing and Urban Development said that homelessness had increased in 2017 for the first time in seven years, according to an annual count.
“Gentrification means less affordable housing,” Ms. Foscarinis said. “It also means a lot of pressure to remove people who are visibly poor from prominent city areas. These trends are promoting criminalization and promoting these kinds of clashes.”
San Francisco voters passed a law in 2016 that prohibits tents on sidewalks, but the tents can be removed only if the city offers placement in shelters or other options for housing.
The case had been closely watched, and in 2015, the Justice Department under President Barack Obama filed a statement of interest in it, stating that “punishing conduct that is a universal and unavoidable consequence of being human violates the Eighth Amendment.”