Land of the free, unless you’re poor. A group of Boise residents challenged a law prohibiting camping in public, arguing that it violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment when it is used as the basis for criminal penalties against homeless people who are sleeping outside because they cannot find space in a shelter. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit agreed, holding that the city cannot impose criminal penalties on homeless residents “for lacking the means to live out the universal and unavoidable consequences of being human.”
The 9th Circuit opinion went on: “As long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.”
The United States Supreme Court declined to accept the City’s appeal. This was the right decision. The Court likely would have voted overwhelmingly to affirm the 9th Circuit decision. To criminalize the mere presence in a public space seems ridiculous; we’re not talking about trespassing on private property. In addition, this decision will save taxpayer money where less resources will be allocated toward prosecuting and jailing homeless populations. Hopefully, those resources can be reallocated toward longer-term, more sustainable progress, such as mental health or substance abuse treatment, job training, housing subsidies, etc. The difficulty, of course, is that there is no political will for these services. It’s much easier for a politician to sell criminalization as a prospective solution.
Criminalizing homelessness is not a solution, it’s a temporary band aid on an issue that’s not going away. Homelessness is a systemic, multifactoral issue with no easy quick-fix solution.