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A homeless person sleeps under blankets on a sidewalk, Jan. 5, 2017 in midtown New York.
Mark Lennihan/AP
Citizenship

Punishing the Homeless for Sleeping Outside Is Finally Getting Harder in the US


Why Global Citizens Should Care
Roughly 769 million people live in extreme poverty worldwide and many of them lack shelter. Criminally punishing the homeless and using religious restrictions at shelters limits access to basic needs in places like Boise. You can join us in ending extreme poverty here

Some US cities can’t ticket homeless people for sleeping on the street anymore, but only if they don’t have access to shelters. 

On Tuesday in Boise, Idaho, a federal appeal court classified prosecuting the homeless for sleeping on public property as cruel and unusual punishment, which is unconstitutional, AP reports

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The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals' ruling favored six Boise homeless residents who sued the city in 2009 because sleeping in public was illegal at that time. 

As a result of the ruling, other cities in California and elsewhere on the West Coast with similar laws might soon have to lift their bans on sleeping outdoors, too, according to the Los Angeles Times

There simply aren’t enough shelters to accommodate everyone who needs them. In 2017, after seven years of steady decline, the US homeless population increased to roughly 554,000 people who slept in cars, tents, or shelters. The rise in big cities has been attributed to the West Coast’s affordable-housing crisis, which emerged as a result of rising rents and low wages. 

When the Boise lawsuit was filed in 2009, 4,500 people didn’t have a place to sleep at night, according to the attorneys representing the homeless residents. Homeless shelters could only accommodate about 700 people at that time, according to AP

Read More: LA Students Are Building Tiny Houses for People Experiencing Homelessness

Boise tried to address its homelessness issue in 2014 by changing the laws to protect those who slept in public only when they couldn’t find a spot in shelters. That new rule only acted as a band-aid for the issue, since shelters had a cap on how long people could stay. 

In order to claim a spot in most of the city’s shelters, Boise residents also had to participate in religious programs, which gave those with secular beliefs fewer options. 

Boise isn’t the only place where homeless residents sued the city over similar grievances in the past decade, but they haven’t always resulted in much progress.  

In one 2007 Los Angeles case, the court initially sided with homeless residents and found outlawing sleeping on the streets when there weren’t enough beds in shelters was unconstitutional. Ultimately, however, both sides reached an agreement that didn’t impact the city’s laws long term — in June the city announced they may reenforce the sidewalk sleeping ban. Portland had more success in 2009 after a federal ruling marked it unconstitutional to stop people from sitting or lying on public sidewalks after, making it illegal.

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“Criminally punishing homeless people for sleeping on the street when they have nowhere else to go is inhumane, and we applaud the court for holding that it is also unconstitutional,” Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, said in a statement.

Hopefully Boise’s ruling influences states around the rest of the country to hop on board with the small step to protect homeless communities in their cities.