The right to rest.
Living homeless isn’t easy. The “homeless” part isn’t compatible with “living.” And a spate of recent legislation has made it even more difficult by banning camping, sleeping (even in parked vehicles), and often sitting/lying in public places. A recent Department of Justice (DOJ) Statement of Interest has ruled that these prohibitions may be “cruel and unusual punishment.” Basically, they said it is unconstitutional to penalize people for sleeping outside if there are not enough beds available in local shelters.
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.
No one can survive without sleeping, and everyone needs to sit sometimes. But if you are homeless, you might have to hike a long distance to reach a safe place to sit down, and find a hidden sleeping space. A recent
study found that of the 187 cities surveyed, 34% ban public camping; 43% ban sleeping in parked vehicles; and 53% ban sitting and lying in public. The study reported that bans on sleeping in vehicles have increased by 119% since 2011.
The DOJ issued a Statement of Interest in a case filed against Boise, Idaho by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP) and Idaho Legal Aid Services on behalf of local homeless people (Janet F. Bell, et al vs City of Boise). The 6 August 2015 decision references a previous decision (Jones v. City of Los Angeles, 2006-07) and states (bold added for emphasis)
The Jones court found enforcement of the ordinance to be unconstitutional as applied to the plaintiffs because of inadequate shelter space. The court based its decision on its conclusion that, “[w]hether sitting, lying, and sleeping are defined as acts or conditions, they are universal and unavoidable consequences of being human.” Because sleeping is unavoidable, the court then considered whether the plaintiffs had a choice to sleep somewhere other than in public, concluding that they did not: “for homeless individuals in [Los Angeles’] Skid Row who have no access to private spaces, these acts can only be done in public.” As a result, the court found that sleeping in public is “involuntary and inseparable from” an individual’s status or condition of being homeless when no shelter space is available.
Eric Tars, a senior attorney for the NLCHP said in a WAPO Article
“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 says. “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.’”
How this decision works out in real life application isn’t clear. The Jones vs City of Los Angeles decision was issued nearly eight years ago and as noted previously bans on sleeping in vehicles have increased by 119 percent in the past four years.
Investing in shelters and other housing is cost-effective, though. The NLCHP study determined that providing housing is cheaper than managing and penalizing homeless people.
— The annual cost of emergency room visits and jail stays for
an average homeless person was $16,670, while providing an apartment and a social worker cost only $11,000.— By providing housing, the city reduced spending on homelessness-related jail costs by 64%.
— Providing chronically homeless people with permanent housing and case managers would save taxpayers $149 million in reduced law enforcement and medical care costs over the next decade.
The study recommended that both federal and state governments invest in affordable housing and decriminalization of homelessness.
— The federal government should invest in affordable housing at the scale necessary to end and prevent homelessness.— The federal government should play
a leadership role in combatting the criminalization of homelessness by local governments and promote constructive alternatives.
— State governments should enact and enforce Homeless Bill of Rights legislation that explicitly prohibits the criminalization of homelessness.
— Local governments should stop criminalizing homelessness.
Originally posted to Besame on Thu Aug 13, 2015 at 05:27 PM PDT.