Boise & Garden City

Homeless camping lawsuit against Boise returns to court

On Thursday, attorneys representing the city once again defended an ordinance that bars sleeping and camping in public spaces in an ongoing lawsuit brought by several homeless Idahoans.

The suit is one of many filed in multiple states challenging the legality of local laws targeting the homeless, several of which have been overturned or modified. Most recently, the U.S. Department of Justice came out in opposition of Boise’s ordinance, arguing that it unconstitutionally punishes people for being homeless.

Boise officials maintain that the ordinance addresses public health and safety concerns.

“There are some unfortunate sanitation and health issues when you’re camping outside,” said Brady Hall, an attorney defending the city. “In a shelter, there are those facilities. If you’re camping outside, you have a constitutional right to relieve yourself, but you’re doing it on someone’s property … If there is space in the shelters, they should go to the shelters.”

Legal advocates sued the city and the Boise Police Department in 2009 on behalf of eight homeless residents who had been arrested or cited for violating Boise’s rules against sleeping in public. The group contends that local law criminalizes homelessness because shelters are often full, forcing the homeless to sleep in parks or public spaces.

The ordinance is similar to those in Hawaii, where the city of Honolulu recently banned sitting and lying down on sidewalks in the tourist hotspot Waikiki and in business districts after tourists complained they were uncomfortable with so many homeless people living near the beach.

The ban in Honolulu has received criticism from Mayor Kirk Caldwell, who’s concerned that extending it beyond business hours or commercial districts could be legally indefensible.

However, Caldwell said the Justice Department’s statement about Boise’s policies doesn’t affect Honolulu, because the Boise policies have to do with sleeping, Honolulu’s policies do not.

“In addition, when we do these enforcements, we do check with providers to make sure that there is shelter space available, and on any given night, there is shelter space available in many shelters around this island,” Caldwell said.

Back in 2009, Boise’s ordinance made it a misdemeanor for any person to use any of the streets, sidewalks, parks or public places as a camping space.

But after the lawsuit was filed, the city issued a “special order” prohibiting police from enforcing the camping and sleeping ordinances when there are no available spaces at the city’s homeless shelters. The shelters have since agreed to report to the city’s dispatch when they are full, and dispatchers agreed to send alerts advising the Boise Police Department.

“What actually should mean a bed is available, the city has interpreted it as space,” said Scott Jones, representing the plaintiffs, arguing that setting up a mat on a dining room floor in a shelter should not qualify as availability. “The ordinance doesn’t get there in wording and it certainly doesn’t get there in application.”

Attorneys gave their arguments in front of U.S. District Magistrate Judge Ronald Bush, who previously ruled in favor of the city while arguing that challenging the city ordinance should take place in state appellate courts. The case was revived in 2013 after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found that the federal court did have jurisdiction over the matter.

Citywide bans on homeless camping in public have increased by 60 percent since 2011, according to a 2014 report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, which is also representing the plaintiffs in the Boise anti-camping case.

The same report showed that when those camping bans are challenged in court, nearly 70 percent are overturned or result in a favorable settlement that modifies the law.