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Activists cheer DOJ filing on homeless right to sleep outdoors

DOJ calls a Boise, Idaho, ban on sleeping outdoors ‘cruel and unusual,’ offering hope to advocates for the homeless

The Department of Justice (DOJ) has sided with advocates for the homeless challenging a Boise, Idaho, law that bans people from sleeping on the street. The department said that the law amounts to "cruel and unusual punishment," a violation of the 8th Amendment of the Bill of Rights. 

The DOJ’s statement of interest, similar to a friend-of-the-court brief, was filed in an Idaho district court. It recommends that federal magistrate Judge Ronald E. Bush “find that enforcement of the ordinances under those circumstances criminalizes the status of being homeless and violates the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.”

“For many homeless people, finding a safe and legal place to sleep can be difficult or even impossible,” the statement reads.

This is the department's first intervention of this kind into what the homelessness rights advocates call the criminalization of the homeless, according to The Washington Post.

The DOJ statement does not carry the weight of law.

The City of Boise disagreed with the statement, and argues that it should be able to enforce the ban on sleeping on the streets when there are beds available in its shelter system. 

“It is rare that our community’s service providers have no capacity — typically only during extreme weather events. And when that does happen, city ordinance prohibits law enforcement officers from writing tickets," city spokesman Mike Journee told the Idaho Statesman

"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," he said. 

The Idaho district court is set to issue a summary judgment before the end of August that will determine the next phase of the case. 

Homelessness rights advocates lauded what they say is tantamount to a show of support from the DOJ.

“It’s super exciting,” said Shahera Hyatt, the director of the California Youth Homelessness Project. “What it does is it gives legitimacy at the local level to the voices that are already there against the criminalization of homelessness.”

For advocates for the homeless, the statement feels like their version of the Supreme Court marriage equality decision, Hyatt said.

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP), which helped file the civil rights suit countered Boise's position on the statement, arguing the shelters available are inadequate and incapable of accommodating the needs of people with mental illness, a common problem among homeless people.  

The DOJ’s recommendation comes as part of a larger federal push against the criminalization of homelessness, said Eric Tars, a senior attorney with the NLCHP, which helped file a civil rights lawsuit against the Boise and its police department, urging leaders to scrap the ordinance.

Since 2012, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, a federal and private-sector effort to reduce homelessness, has urged cities and states to build housing and provide services for the homeless rather than using the criminal justice system to criminalize people living on the street. The council argues that providing housing is a less expensive and more effective solution.

“Most homeless people aren’t criminals,” Tars told Al Jazeera “It’s only the laws that criminalize their acts of survival that make them into that.”

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