In a statement of interest filed in a Boise, Idaho, court case, the Department of Justice argued it is unconstitutional to ban the homeless from sleeping outside.
The DOJ claims that by banning sleeping or camping in public spaces, as Boise and other cities do, they are criminalizing homelessness in cases where an individual has no other place to sleep, The Washington Post reports.
“When adequate shelter space exists, individuals have a choice about whether or not to sleep in public,” the DOJ statement of interest reads. “However, when adequate shelter space does not exist, there is no meaningful distinction between the status of being homeless and the conduct of sleeping in public. 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.”
The statement was submitted in the case Bell v. City of Boise. A group of homeless people filed the federal lawsuit after being arrested for camping and sleeping on city grounds.
The plaintiffs claim the sleeping and camping ban violates their Eighth Amendment rights which prohibit cruel and unusual punishment, AOL reports.
"It's huge," said Eric Tars, senior attorney for the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, which alongside Idaho Legal Aid originally filed the lawsuit, in reference to the DOJ statement.
In a 2014 report, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty found that 53 percent of 187 surveyed cities in the U.S. had laws banning people from sitting or lying in select public spaces.
Of cities surveyed, 34 percent had laws in effect that ban camping in public, and 43 percent prohibit sleeping in vehicles.
"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 said. "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.'"
The federal government estimates that there were about 153,000 unsheltered homeless on the street in the U.S. any given night of 2014.
"Homelessness never left town because somebody gave it a ticket," Tars said. "The only way to end homelessness is to make sure everybody has access to affordable, decent housing."