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Attention Western U.S.: You finally have to stop punishing homeless people for being homeless

Attention Western U.S.: You finally have to stop punishing homeless people for being homeless
A homeless man in Compton on April 6. (Los Angeles Times)

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has concluded that prosecuting homeless people for sleeping on public property when they have no access to shelter amounts to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the 8th Amendment of the Constitution. The decision, which will protect the homeless across the entire Western United States, affirms a principle that should be obvious: that there’s no point — and no moral justification — for telling people they can’t sleep on a sidewalk if they have nowhere else to go.

The decision stems from a Boise, Idaho, court case in which six homeless people challenged the city’s enforcement of ordinances that prohibit sleeping or camping on public property at night. But the city of Los Angeles has been grappling with the issue for more than a decade. A panel of the same appeals court decided in 2006 in the case of Jones vs. the City of Los Angeles that the city could not enforce an ordinance against homeless people sleeping in public places as long as there were not enough available shelter beds. That decision led the city to enter into what is known as the Jones settlement, which prevents the police from rousting homeless people overnight until the city provides 1,250 new units of permanent supportive housing for homeless people.

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In the Boise decision, Judge Marsha S. Berzon gets to the heart of the issue by quoting from the original Jones decision: “As Jones reasoned, ‘[w]hether sitting, lying, and sleeping are defined as acts or conditions, they are universal and unavoidable consequences of being human.’” Therefore, she concludes, “as long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.”

In fact, even if there are enough shelter beds, the government cannot necessarily force people into them, Berzon wrote. For instance, homeless people cannot be compelled to sleep at a shelter that requires attendance at religious programs.

Tuesday’s much-needed decision will put local governments across the Western U.S. (where the 9th Circuit has jurisdiction) on notice that they cannot use arrests and prosecutions to solve their homelessness problems. The key to getting homeless people off the streets is to provide housing — short-term and permanent — as well as treatment and services for those in need of them.

Here in L.A., the decision serves as a reminder that creating 1,250 units of permanent supportive housing — as promised under the Jones settlement — will not be enough. By the last homeless count for the city of L.A., there were more than 31,000 homeless people, nearly 23,000 of them unsheltered.

Providing adequate shelter and housing for homeless people is not just a matter of benevolence or noblesse oblige; it is necessary. The city of L.A. is already scrambling to construct bridge shelters and permanent housing. This decision is just a reminder how urgent that need is.

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