Homeless Idaho residents sue city over camping law

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by Associated Press

NWCN.com

Posted on November 8, 2009 at 12:28 PM

BOISE, Idaho - Seven homeless Boise residents are suing the city and the police department, saying that rules against camping in public spaces amount to cruel and unusual punishment in a city where homeless shelters are overflowing.

The lawsuit, filed last month in federal court, echoes similar cases popping up around the nation, all targeting rules that advocates say amount to the criminalization of homelessness.

On any given night, the suit contends, between 2,000 and 4,500 people are homeless in Idaho's capital city, and only about 700 of them will be able to get a bed or a mat on the floor in one of the area's shelters. The others have no choice but to violate city ordinances against camping or sleeping in public, the filing states.

"Boise police officers routinely issue camping citations to homeless residents for sleeping, sitting, or talking with friends in public places -- activities non-homeless residents have the freedom to engage in without fear of police interference," the group writes in the lawsuit, filed in the names of Janet F. Bell, Brian S. Carson, Craig Fox, Robert Martin, Lawrence Lee Smith, Robert Anderson and Pamela S. Hawkins.

Boise City Attorney Scott Muir said he couldn't comment on pending litigation.

But Tulin Ozdegre, an attorney with the National Center on Homelessness and Poverty who is representing the Boise homeless residents in the lawsuit, said the poor economy and high foreclosure rate means the ranks of the homeless will continue to grow.

"Many communities around the country are seeing a dramatic rise in the number of homeless people, and most cities don't have the resources to meet the need," she said. "Currently we're involved in a couple other lawsuits as well: In St. Petersburg, Fla., we're challenging a number of laws and practices there targeting homeless people. And we have another lawsuit in the city of Dallas with a different twist, over a law that restricts groups from sharing food with homeless people in public spaces."

Cities nationwide are dealing with similar issues. Honolulu began enforcing an overnight camping ban at a local park a year ago, but in October the city council shelved a bill that would have made it illegal to sleep on the sidewalk after some members questioned how it would affect the homeless.

Homeless advocates sued the city of Portland, Ore., last year over an anti-camping ordinance, a case that is now in settlement negotiations. In October, the California city of Laguna Beach created a sleeping area for the homeless in response to a lawsuit that claimed the city was harassing disabled homeless residents. The ACLU sued Santa Barbara, Calif. in March contending that an ordinance banning nighttime sleeping on public property unfairly criminalized the homeless.

On Tuesday, Boise City Council members are expected to hear on third reading a measure that would clarify the word "camping" to mean the use of public property as a sojourn or a place of residence anytime between sunset and sunrise. The change also states that storing personal belongings, cooking or making a fire in an unauthorized area also indicates that someone is camping.

The plaintiffs in the case don't have addresses or phone numbers and couldn't be immediately reached. But they detailed their circumstances in the lawsuit.

Martin, who is mentally ill and has a physical disability and has been homeless on and off for 11 years -- since he was 18 -- has been cited twice this year for sleeping near local shelters, according to the lawsuit. Martin contends he can't walk far because of his disability, which means he can't hike out of town to sleep and then back in to get to a soup kitchen where he can shower, clean his clothes and eat. Smith lived in his camper van until it was stolen, and now often sleeps along the Boise River, according to the lawsuit. After getting two camping citations in 2007, Smith says he served 100 days in jail. He also lost his tent, stove and fishing equipment following the arrest, he said, making it harder to survive without shelter.

The homeless residents are asking the court to order the city to expunge their records of any homeless person wrongly ticketed, to pay damages and to declare that the city's actions violated Constitutional rights of homeless residents.

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