By Ralph Johansen

The federal appeals court governing the western U.S. ruled this week that jailing or criminalizing homeless people for sleeping outside is cruel and inhuman punishment.

The court ruled against the city of Boise, Idaho for use of a no-camping ordinance to prosecute homeless people who sleep outside on public property when they have no home or bed in a shelter.

The decision makes it clear that city and county officials have failed to address a homeless crisis, even as it worsens and impacts more and more children because the number of affordable homes has dwindled significantly.

The ruling may serve to re-focus public attention on housing affordability and homelessness issues at both the local and federal level.

Many who sleep on the streets have had bad experiences in shelters and feel safer in self-made street communities. Many shelters are places of insecurity for women and children and many impose maximum stay rules.

The U.S. Justice Department’s civil rights division head stated that “Many homeless individuals are unable to secure shelter space because city shelters are over capacity or inaccessible to people with disabilities…” Criminally prosecuting those individuals for something as innocent as sleeping, when they have no safe, legal place to go, violates their constitutional rights. Moreover, enforcing these ordinances is poor public policy. Needlessly pushing homeless individuals into the criminal justice system does nothing to break the cycle of poverty or prevent homelessness in the future. Instead, it imposes further burdens on scarce judicial and correctional resources, and it can have long-lasting and devastating effects on individuals’ lives.

Cities that have imposed criminal sanctions on the homeless do so despite ample evidence that it’s three times cheaper and much more practicable, especially in view of harm resulting and obvious appearances of local neglect, to make free housing available.

Why should this not include the many vacant habitable spaces which local government could rent or buy, refurbish, furnish and make available, to homeless families outright, or otherwise using government responsibility and prerogatives, effectively monitor for others?

So surely, meanwhile and with colder weather approaching, the appointed local subcommittee and governing bodies will take effective steps and not study, evade and equivocate.

Ralph Johansen lives in Crescent City.

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