The Hidden Costs of Civil Sidewalks 

Laws targeting aggressive panhandling walk in the shadow of past litigation

"How do we prevent homelessness?" That was a central question at a recent Idaho Coalition for the Homeless panel discussion (BW, Citydesk, "Legal Experts Remind Boise Homeless Coalition to Be Vigilant, Vocal," Aug. 7, 2013), focusing on new efforts at Boise City Hall to combat panhandling.

"What we're dealing with is a balance of rights. We have a right to solicit and we have a right of unobstructed passage," said Boise City Councilman David Eberle, who noted the proposals grew out of complaints from police, who said there was little they could do to prevent what they called "aggressive" panhandling until an assault occurred.

Just who balances the costs of homelessness depends on how Eberle and his colleagues cast their votes Tuesday, Sept. 17, when the City Council is expected to weigh two proposals aimed at restricting aggressive panhandling and "pedestrian obstruction"--a term proponents use to describe what happens when a resident or business owner opens their door to find a homeless person camped out on the sidewalk. The outcome could ramp up legal expenses.

"We still don't understand why the city seems determined to follow a course that many devoted homeless advocates warn will be counterproductive and that will assuredly result in expensive litigation," American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho Executive Director Monica Hopkins wrote in an open letter to City Council members.

Proponents say that failure of the stricter measures might mean dwindling consumer activity at downtown businesses and/or more incidents of crime. But homeless rights advocates say passage of the proposals would cost Boiseans their constitutional freedoms and ultimately inflate the city's legal bills.

"It seems like this is going to be the third installment in a trilogy. And I hope it is just a trilogy," ACLU of Idaho attorney Ritchie Eppink said. Past city actions on homeless issues yielded two lawsuits: one following a crackdown on camping and another resulting in a judgment forcing the city to pay $1 million dollars to Community House (BW, News, "When Partners Attack," Oct. 12, 2005).

"The jury's verdict was crystal clear: The city violated federal civil rights laws, discriminated against women and children and abridged homeless people's religious freedom," Eppink said. "The city's legal track record on homelessness issues should be deeply troubling to everyone in our community."

The proposed ordinances packed the City Council chambers with impassioned testimony for and against the measures at a July 30 hearing (BW, Citydesk, "Boise City Council Mulls Anti-Panhandling Ordinances, Following 3-Plus Hours of Testimony," July 31, 2013). A handful of downtown shopkeepers spoke of aggressive panhandlers deterring would-be customers, while former panhandlers spoke of how street begging pulled them from a desperate financial situation.

"The city taking it on--it's the right thing to do," Eberle said of funding programs that help get the homeless off the street.

But Boise Weekly found that annual efforts to curb homelessness are easily rivaled by recent legal fees spent to defend the city against lawsuits filed as a result of decisions surrounding homeless issues.

BW filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the city of Boise asking for legal fee expenditure reports related to the 2012 Community House court decision. The city responded Sept. 6, with the legal department saying those records don't exist. Legal bills go straight from attorneys to the city's insurance carrier and officials don't know how much the city spent on legal fees in the Community House case, nor could they give BW an estimate.

"When you can't figure out how much you spent on litigation, you probably spent a little more than you should have," Eppink said.

City of Boise spokesman Adam Park said the Community House lawsuit tab that some previous media reports estimated would top $3 million was picked up by the city's insurer.

"If that's the case, I hope the city has a good insurer," Eppink said. "I don't go around driving thinking, 'OK, if I hit someone, my insurance is going to cover it.'"

The estimated $3 million Community House bill--plus legal fees associated with current litigation stemming from the city's clampdown on camping--would top Boise's annual spending on homeless intervention and prevention. In public records obtained from a FOIA request, BW found that the bulk of funding toward homeless prevention and intervention in Boise comes from the federal government. In fiscal year 2011, the city spent $241,056 on Allumbaugh House operations, was awarded about $1.9 million in federal grants and reported a balance of $709,804 in program income.

Jim Birdsall, manager of the city's Housing and Community Development Division, estimates that the city appropriates between $600,000 to $700,000 from Boise's budget to the administration, coordination and implementation of programs--a fiscal commitment he said is unusual for a city the size of Boise.

Two days after the city complied with BW's request for homeless prevention and intervention expenditure reports, the city's public information office issued a press release announcing the award of a $1,023,366 federal Housing and Urban Development grant to assist homelessness programs. It's an annual, renewable award that usually doesn't come with a press announcement, but combined with funds from other federal programs, Birdsall said it helps put a sizeable dent in homelessness-related expenses.

"I think people would be surprised how much money is being directed to address homelessness," Birdsall said.

Birdsall said the outcomes of such programs are difficult to quantify. An annual census sends volunteers to the streets for a one-night, January headcount of the city's homeless. But weather and the size of the volunteer pool all affect the snapshot's results.

What Birdsall does know: City efforts, federal grant money and community partnerships help shelter 300 individuals and families in low-income housing. But there are never enough roofs to go around and there's never enough money.

And Boise's homeless can't afford the costs of the proposed ordinances either, homeless advocates say. Some fear passage of the measures would entangle the ill and people with disabilities in the criminal justice system. Others worry passage of proposals similar to ones adopted by other cities--which showed questionable, if any results--wouldn't serve as a deterrent and would trample on everyone's First Amendment rights. But Eberle said the ordinances are a start.

"Whether this achieves that or not, I don't know. I don't know any other way than to see what happens over a relatively short period of time," Eberle said.

With legal action all but assured, passage would come with a high price, Hopkins said.

"We'll see what the courts say," Eberle said. "You don't make progress in this world without a lawsuit or two."

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