Human beings need sleep. Homeless people are human beings. Therefore, homeless people need sleep and shouldn’t be banned from getting it in what is often the only place they can: outdoors. That’s the simple argument the Justice Department is making in a case out of Boise, Idaho, one of the many U.S. cities with inadequate shelter space that have nonetheless attempted to bar unhoused people from sleeping outside.
Here’s the key passage from the DoJ’s Statement of Interest in the case, which gives the distinct feeling that the writers were clutching their foreheads in disbelief that they actually had to explain this to a judge:
When adequate shelter space does not exist, there is no meaningful distinction between the status of being homeless and the conduct of sleeping in public. Sleeping is a life-sustaining activity—i.e., it must occur at some time in some place. If a person literally has nowhere else to go, then enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance against that person criminalizes her for being homeless.
To effectively make being homeless a crime, the Department argues, violates the Eighth Amendment’s “cruel and unusual punishments” clause.
It also does nothing to solve homelessness. The plaintiffs, represented by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, point out that prosecuting people for being on the street doesn’t help them find jobs and housing—exactly the opposite, in fact—and it also costs more than funding housing programs.
There are still factual disputes in the case regarding the availability of shelter beds in Boise, and whether Boise police are enforcing the (bad, misguided) law against homeless individuals even when all beds are full. The DoJ hasn’t taken a position on that, and whether cities could ban public sleeping if they built enough shelter space is still an open question.