DOJ: Unconstitutional to 'Criminalize' Homeless People for Sleeping in Parks or on Sidewalks

By Susan Jones | August 6, 2015 | 12:04pm EDT
A homeless woman rests in Lions Park in Costa Mesa, California. (AP File Photo)

( - The Justice Department on Thursday said it is unconstitutional to punish homeless people who sleep in public places when the shelters are full.

The DOJ filed a "statement of interest" in federal district court in Idaho, in a case (Bell v. City of Boise et al.) brought by homeless plaintiffs who were convicted under Boise ordinances that criminalize sleeping or camping in public.

“No one wants people to sleep on sidewalks or in parks, particularly not our veterans, or young people, or people with mental illness,” said Lisa Foster, Director of the Office for Access to Justice. “But the answer is not to criminalize homelessness.  Instead, we need to work with our local government partners to provide the services people need, including legal services, to obtain permanent and stable housing.”

As stated by the Justice Department in its filing, “[i]t should be uncontroversial that punishing conduct that is a universal and unavoidable consequence of being human violates the Eighth Amendment. ...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.”

“Many homeless individuals are unable to secure shelter space because city shelters are over capacity or inaccessible to people with disabilities,” said Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division.  

“Criminally prosecuting those individuals for something as innocent as sleeping, when they have no safe, legal place to go, violates their constitutional rights.  Moreover, enforcing these ordinances is poor public policy.  

'Needlessly pushing homeless individuals into the criminal justice system does nothing to break the cycle of poverty or prevent homelessness in the future.  Instead, it imposes further burdens on scarce judicial and correctional resources, and it can have long-lasting and devastating effects on individuals’ lives.”

MRC Store