The City of Boise says the U.S. Department of Justice was incorrect when it accused the city of punishing people for being homeless.
The Department weighed in Thursday on a lawsuit that says homeless people receive tickets for sleeping in public spaces.
The Justice Department filed a statement of interest in the case of Bell v. City of Boise. The Department says it is opposing the Boise law that makes it a crime for homeless people to sleep or camp in public places because it unconstitutionally punishes them for being homeless.
But city spokesman Mike Journee says the law was changed and police can no longer give tickets for camping if homeless shelters are full. And if there is room at a shelter, police will try to convince people to go there.
Despite the criticism, Journee says long-term camping on city streets quickly becomes a health and safety issue, for both the homeless and the city.
“If there are confrontations or bad sanitary situations where multiple families are living in the same area, we can’t ignore that,” says Journee. “That is something that has to be addressed, that is something our constituents demand to be addressed.”
The suit was originally brought by seven homeless people in 2009 who were cited under the law, even though there was no room for them at local shelters.
The number of citations issued for camping in a public place in Boise has steadily gone up over the past few years.
- 2012 – 12 people charged
- 2013 – 23 people charged
- 2014 – 68 people charged
- 2015 – 293 people charged so far this year
The Justice Department said, “If a person literally has nowhere else to go, then enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance against that person criminalizes her for being homeless.”
Advocates for the homeless say there are some people whose mental health issues or physical disabilities may keep them from staying in shelters even when there is room.
Journee says there are services available, beyond just a bed for the night, for people who face those challenges.
“But they have to want that support. They have to want that treatment. They have to want those types of services. Someone’s personal choice to not avail themselves of the services is their personal choice and no matter how much the police ask them to avail themselves of it, they can’t force them to do that,” says Journee.
The Boise Police Department has hired a mental health coordinator to work with officers so they can address those issues when they come up. Boise police monitor homeless individuals and work to get to know people so they can refer them to resources that are available.
Journee says law enforcement cannot fix this problem - there needs to be a community solution. He says Mayor Dave Bieter is working with government agencies, non-profits, corporations and the faith community to pull together a group that can find a holistic solution.
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