Right now, in cities and counties all across the country, there are vagrancy laws against sleeping outside, camping in public spaces, and other similar laws that are used indiscriminately against the homeless. The number of homeless people has shot up since 2008, and there are nowhere near enough shelters to accommodate them all.
When a homeless person – or anyone – gets charged with breaking one of these laws, the impact is enormous, it cascades consequences upon consequences, and has a devastating effect on the future prospects of the homeless to get jobs and housing.
In Montgomery County, criminalizing the homeless has been a growth industry for years. Disorderly conduct, trespassing, you name it, they charge it, in hundreds of citations per week, tens of thousands in a year. Or s county that prides itself on its progressive ways and welcoming attitude, our treatment of the homeless stands in stark contrast to our self-image.
This obscure case in Idaho may change all that. The federal government has filed a “statement of interest” in a case I federal court in Idaho. In that case, homeless people in Boise are suing the city, claiming that enforcement of that city’s vagrancy laws is unconstitutional as being in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.
The statement of interest is a remarkable read, setting forth the government’s argument on behalf of the plaintiffs in the case on the constitutional issue. Go read it all but here’s the gist of it as set forth in the Post article.
When adequate shelter space exists, individuals have a choice about whether or not to sleep in public. 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.
I’d add another paragraph to highlight as well.
Issuing citations for public sleeping forces individuals into the criminal justice system and creates additional obstacles to overcoming homelessness. Criminal records can create barriers to employment and participation in permanent, supportive housing programs. Convictions under these municipal ordinances can also lead to lengthy jail sentences based on the ordinance violation itself, or the inability to pay fines and fees associated with the ordinance violation. Incarceration, in turn, has a profound effect on these individuals’ lives. Finally, pursuing charges against individuals for sleeping in public imposes further burdens on scarce public defender, judicial, and carceral resources. Thus, criminalizing homelessness is both unconstitutional and misguided public policy, leading to worse outcomes for people who are homeless and for their communities.
All true. If the federal government’s position is adopted, enforcement of vagrancy laws against the homeless – at least those who have no place else to go – will be outlawed. If states, counties and cities – like Montgomery County – want to do something about homelessness, we should take all the money we now spend destructively arresting, incarcerating, prosecuting and sentencing people simply for the crime of being homeless, and use it affirmatively and proactively to provide more and better housing options for the growing numbers of people who are homeless in our community.