Boise Defends Camping Ordinance Accused of Targeting Homeless 

click to enlarge The encampment of homeless people under the I-84 Connector near Rhodes Skate Park, where Rusty Bitton, 37, was found murdered in October 2014.

Jessica Murri

The encampment of homeless people under the I-84 Connector near Rhodes Skate Park, where Rusty Bitton, 37, was found murdered in October 2014.

The city of Boise was in federal court today, defending an anti-camping ordinance critics say targets the homeless.

Bell vs. Idaho, filed in 2009 by a group of homeless men and women, challenges the city's policy of ticketing those found sleeping in public. City officials tweaked the law in 2014, making it only enforced if there are available beds at area homeless shelters. 

Representing the plaintiffs, who all received citations under the ordinance between 2006 and 2009, lawyers argued before U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald Bush that there aren't enough beds at local shelters to keep people facing homelessness from violating the ordinance. 

"You'll hear talk about available space [from the defense]," said attorney Scott Jones of Los Angeles-based Latham & Watkins, representing the plaintiffs. "But what you won't hear about are available beds."

The city's defense, however, touted the ordinance as a reasonable solution to Boise's growing number of people camping out of doors—notably under the I-84 Connector near Interfaith Sanctuary—and pointed to changes made to the ordinance since its original passage that allow public camping if there are no available shelter beds.

Attorney Brady Hall, of Boise-based Moore & Elia Law Firm, said the ordinance also helps keep downtown Boise cleaner and safer. Last fall, 37-year-old Rusty Bitton, who had been living under the connector, was found apparently beaten to death. A 24-year-old man has been charged with second-degree murder in the case. His trial is set for November.

"There are significant health and safety risks [related to public camping]," Hall said. "There are some unfortunate health and sanitation issues."

The Aug. 20 court proceedings hinged on the number of available beds at Boise area shelters—specifically whether the River of Life shelter, a faith-based organization, has been forthright about the number of beds it has available.

The facility runs an emergency shelter on its ground floor, which is available to homeless people for 17 days free from proselytism. On the 18th day, shelter users are asked to join in religious services. Attorneys for the plaintiffs told Bush that because their clients had objected to the religious requirement at the shelter they were "timed out" of their stay. Back on the streets, they were issued tickets under Boise's ordinance. 

"The state can't force you to participate in a religious object," Jones said. "You are compelled [to participate in religious services at the shelter], just not on the first day."

Legal defense for the city denied the claim.

"The Establishment Clause [in the U.S. Constitution] is simply not before this court. No one has been required to attend chapel as a condition of staying at this facility," Hall said. 

Bush pushed back.

"That dog won't hunt," he said.

Another point of contention was whether temporary beds constitute acceptable beds. River of Life lays out mats in its eating area during high-volume nights—usually in the winter—and while the mats are the same product as the mattresses used on beds at the shelter, the number of people sleeping on the floor has exceeded the fire marshal's accepted occupancy for River of Life.

The defense stressed that the fire marshal has never cited River of Life for going over its designated occupancy, and claimed plaintiffs had been disingenuous about how they had calculated River of Life's shelter capacity.

"The plaintiffs are engaging in some very creative number crunching," Hall said. 

Bell v. City of Boise recently garnered national attention. Plaintiffs have been backed by the Department of Justice, which earlier this month released a statement saying Boise's ordinance effectively criminalizes homelessness. Bush told the court that while he will consider the letter, he is not bound by it. 

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

Boise isn't the only city that has or is considering a public camping ordinance. According to Eric Tars, senior attorney for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, Bush's upcoming ruling will have an impact on whether those municipalities go forward with similar ordinances. 

"The Department of Justice's filing put the eyes of the country on Boise," he said. "There's a very clear push against criminalizing homelessness."

He pointed to other cities that have implemented housing-first initiatives and other policies that have proved effective in addressing homelessness, like Houston, San Diego and Philadelphia.

"If they want to talk policy, we'll talk policy," he said.
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