The city of Boise will return to court to once again defend its controversial anti-camping ordinance. Passed in 2009 and amended in 2014, the ordinance has already been subject to legal scrutiny, and on Thursday, Aug. 20, U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald Bush will summon attorneys representing the city of Boise, Idaho Legal Aid Services and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty to argue the constitutionality of Title 9, Chapter 10, Section 2 of Boise City Code.
The hearing at the U.S. Courthouse in Boise stems from a years-old lawsuit brought by a group of homeless individuals and comes after the U.S. Department of Justice weighed in on the matter, pushing the controversy into the national spotlight.
National Public Radio, the Washington Post and other media outlets across the U.S. picked up the story when the DOJ wrote in an Aug. 6 "statement of interest" it was not in favor of any rules banning the homeless from sleeping outside, because those rules effectively criminalize homelessness, particularly in situations when people have nowhere else to sleep.
"Sleeping is a life-sustaining activity—i.e., it must occur at some time in some place," the department wrote in its statement. "It should be uncontroversial that punishing conduct that is a universal and unavoidable consequence of being human violates the Eighth Amendment."
Eric Tars, senior attorney for the NLCHP, called the DOJ filing, "huge," adding homelessness was "becoming more visible in communities, and when homelessness becomes more visible, there's more pressure on community leaders to do something about it."
The federal lawsuit was filed in 2009 following adoption of the anti-camping ordinance. When Boise officials tweaked the rule in Sept. 2014 by introducing a "special order" prohibiting enforcement unless shelters are full, the suit was dismissed. The plaintiffs were having none of it, saying their argument was with the ordinance, not the mechanics of how it would be enforced. So they took their case to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which agreed with the plaintiffs and sent the matter back to U.S. Court.
The view from Boise City Hall, however, is the DOJ has it all wrong, and the premise of its filing in the case "is incorrect," according to Mike Journee, spokesman for Boise Mayor Dave Bieter.
"It's rare that our community's service providers have no capacity—typically only during extreme weather events," Journee said. "And when that does happen, city ordinance prohibits law enforcement officers from writing tickets. Those officers keep close tabs on what service resources are available and, every opportunity they get, they encourage those experiencing homelessness to take advantage of those resources."
Vanita Gupta, principal deputy assistant attorney general at the DOJ, said enforcement of such an ordinance 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," Gupta said. "Instead, it imposes further burdens on scarce judicial and correctional resources, and it can have long-lasting and devastating effects on individuals' lives."
Meanwhile, more major American cities will be keeping a close eye on the proceedings in Boise. According to the Los Angeles Times, city officials there said they are looking to dial up strict enforcement of an anti-camping ordinance after the metropolis experienced a 12 percent rise in its homeless population during the past two years.
Tars said any efforts to criminalize citizens without homes are destined to fail.
"Homelessness never left town because somebody gave it a ticket," he said. "The only way to end homelessness is to make certain everybody has access to affordable, decent housing."