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DOJ Says It's Unconstitutional To Ban The Homeless From Sleeping Outside

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DOJ Says It's Unconstitutional To Ban The Homeless From Sleeping Outside

Law

DOJ Says It's Unconstitutional To Ban The Homeless From Sleeping Outside

DOJ Says It's Unconstitutional To Ban The Homeless From Sleeping Outside

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The Justice Department weighs in on an Idaho case, arguing that homeless people should not be charged with crimes for sleeping outdoors when there is not enough housing in their communities.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Many cities with a homeless problem have responded by passing laws that crack down on camping or sleeping in public places. In some places, they've effectively criminalized homelessness. Well, now the Obama administration is weighing in, arguing that for those who have no choice, sleeping in public is not a crime. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Seven homeless people in Boise, Idaho, are suing the city to overturn a ban on camping and sleeping because they've been punished under the local ordinances. This month, the U.S. Justice Department decided it wanted to use the Boise case to send this message.

VANITA GUPTA: Making it a crime for people who are homeless to sleep in public places when there's insufficient shelter space in a city really is a violation of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

JOHNSON: Vanita Gupta leads the civil rights unit at Justice. She says handing out tickets and fines for an innocent activity like sleeping in public ties up courts and jails, and advocates say that pushing homeless people into the justice system is counterproductive. That's because having a criminal record hurts their chances when they apply for housing and jobs. Eric Tars works at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. He's involved in the Boise case too.

ERIC TARS: Most homeless people aren't criminals, but if you criminalize the simple acts that we all do every day to survive - sleeping, eating, even going to the bathroom - then you make homeless people into criminals, and then you have the criminal justice system dealing with a social problem.

JOHNSON: Tars says the number of ordinances that make it a crime to sleep, sit on the sidewalk or panhandle has gone up by double digits in the past three years. And he says the Justice Department filing in the Boise case could have wide impact since big cities, including Los Angeles, are still figuring out their approach.

TARS: The DOJ's brief sends a really strong signal to the city of Boise and to communities across the country that homeless people do not lose their constitutional rights when they lose their homes.

JOHNSON: In Boise, city officials say they're doing what they can in the face of a huge challenge. Mike Journee is spokesman for the mayor. Here he is talking to Boise State Public Radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MIKE JOURNEE: There are confrontations or bad sanitary situations where multiple families are living in the same area. We can't ignore that. That is something that has to be addressed. That is something that our constituents demand to be addressed.

JOHNSON: Journey says police in Boise have changed their behavior since the lawsuit began. He says they no longer hand out tickets when local shelters are full, but advocates say police don't take into account that some homeless people can't get into those shelters because of disabilities and mental illness. Both sides are due in court later this month for a hearing in the case. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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