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Boise Lawyer Of Plaintiffs In Landmark Homeless Settlement: They Deserve To Be Treated With Dignity

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George Prentice, Boise Weekly
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Howard Belodoff, attorney for a group of homeless men and women in the landmark Martin v. Boise case challenging Boise's controversial "anti-camping" ordinance, says his clients should be very familiar to their fellow citizens."They didn't move here to be homeless," said Belodoff. "Homeless people are probably your neighbors before they become homeless."

In the wake of a settlement in the 12-year-old case, the City of Boise has agreed to spend approximately $1.3 million, sooner than later, to rehabilitiate current homeless shelters or create new shelters. Belodoff visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about his clients and how the settlement "is only the beginning."

“I don't really get any pleasure of suing the city or public officials. I only do it when it's really the last resort … the only resource that is available if you can't change the minds and hearts of public officials to deal with the problem and not stereotype a population.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning, I'm George Prentice. The big news this week in Boise: a settlement in the landmark Martin v. Boise case over the city's controversial so-called “anti camping” ordinance, targeting men and women without a home. And indeed, it has implications in cities across the U.S.. We're going to spend some time this morning talking with the man who successfully represented the plaintiffs in the case. He is Howard Belodoff. His career dates back to the 1970s…and between then and now, his work has established several case precedents of national significance. Howard, good morning.

HOWARD BELODOFF: Good morning, George.

PRENTICE: So, this ordinance… the City of Boise dug its heels in for over a decade but lost legal challenges in federal court and the Ninth Circuit. They wanted to go to the U.S. Supreme Court. Much of that was during the tenure of then-Mayor Dave Bieter. So, my first question is: Why is there a settlement now? Does it have anything to do with a change at Boise City Hall?

BELODOFF: Well, that would probably be a better question for City Hall. My own view is that I think there is a connection between the fact that we have a new administration. And I think that after 12 years of litigation, that the time was right to sit down and reach a compromise to address the concerns which were being raised in the lawsuit, which were criminalizing the act of sleeping by homeless people when, for various reasons, there was no alternative shelter space.

PRENTICE: So, the settlement is somewhere around $1.3 million, once we put fees and costs to the side. How do you know and your clients know… or agree… that it's a good settlement?

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Credit Boise State Public Radio
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Howard Belodoff

BELODOFF: Settlements are always a compromise. You consider many factors: No. 1, the merits. And are you going to be successful? No. 2, if you are successful, what the court might be willing to order? And No. 3, what terms that you can achieve by negotiation in good faith that serves the best interests of your clients? In this case, we had several individual clients. There always was a larger purpose. It wasn't just about the individuals. It was about changing the manner in which the city enacted its ordinances and enforcement ordinances against people who are homeless, who had to sleep and had to have someplace to sleep when shelter was not available, either because there wasn't adequate shelter space or they had a disability that made it difficult for them to live in a shelter environment. This segment of the population has a lot of individual issues and health issues. We only have two shelter providers in town and for many people down to one of the shelters having policies put on people with regard to their religious beliefs to be objectionable. If they couldn't get a place to stay, where would they sleep? It wasn't as sometimes it's portrayed. We have had homeless people in Boise for decades. It wasn't until 20 years ago, maybe the early 1990s, where  the city recognized that they have do something and that led to the Community House shelter. And then, unfortunately, when Bieter came in, he pulled the plug on that, and that created the problem, which I believe led to this lawsuit. He closed Community House and took away shelter space from people. And at the same time, you might remember that he also closed a Salvation Army facility at the Booth Home. It was a  was a very bad situation for people and it caused more people to sleep outside. And then they embarked upon a policy of enforcing this camping order that's been around for decades. But it didn't address the major problem because it took the litigation for the court to recognize that you can't punish somebody for sleeping because they don't have a place… an indoor place… to go that's available to them.

PRENTICE: So, for the record, the city always argued that they could hand out tickets to people if there was space at a shelter. Can they do that now?

BELODOFF: So as part of the settlement and this was really important… instead of just trying to figure out how could they have gone to a shelter by calling the shelter and the one shelter in 12 years, never said they were full… so, they could write a ticket, even though there wasn't a single bed. They had people on floors and hallways.. And that was part of the problem. The settlement provides and the amendments to the ordinance provide. Now, there will be an individual determination of whether that person had available shelter space that they could use. And it would take into account as part of that individual assessment whether that shelter discriminated against them on some basis, whether it was religion or it was sexual orientation and whether they had a disability. I mean, I represented a veteran who just couldn't breathe in a shelter. The environment is very crowded, very noisy. It's a difficult environment, especially for people who have existing conditions, including mental health conditions. And so that's the thing that makes the ordinance enforceable. If somebody had available shelters after the individual determination and they continue to :”camp,” they just basically are sleeping somewhere in a sleeping bag. And of course, all homeless people carry their belongings with them. It is possible that if those requirements are met that they could issue a ticket because they didn't access available space. That's just something that will have to be determined.

PRENTICE: I'm pretty sure we're contemporaries. Do you plan on slowing down anytime soon?

BELODOFF: Now, that's the most difficult question you've asked. Yes. And my wife will probably kill me if I don't slow down and get to my retirement.

PRENTICE: Are you still loving what you do?

BELODOFF: Oh, yeah, I enjoy my interactions with the clients and the public in general, I think that my clients are always underrepresented. They don't have access to the justice system that other people may have. They just don't have the resources. There are not a lot of resources for low income…even middle income people to hire an attorney. This case took 12 years, thousands of hours… thousands. Who in the general public can afford to pay an attorney to do that? They just can't.

PRENTICE: I know it's a joint settlement, but congratulations to your clients and to you.

BELODOFF: I think it’s a see change. But I would say it's a beginning… because really the solutions to homelessness that have just begun… the city needs to recognize that it's a complex issue. There's no one cause. What is needed is affordable housing and supportive services. Shelters should be temporary expenses to stabilize someone until they can be placed into housing. That is what works. That is what ends homelessness. Not really this lawsuit… we wouldn't even need… in order to, if people could have adequate shelter. The recent growth in Boise is only exacerbating the housing crisis. It has taken people out of the ability to rent places. There are no vacancies and the rents have gone up astronomically. And if you're on a fixed income or you're a disabled person or you can't work because of a disability, that's what results in people living in cars or just getting by. And providing those supportive services and making that transition for some of these people is extremely important. That puts me out of business. I don't really get any pleasure of suing the city or public officials. I only do it when it's really the last resort… the only resource that is available if you can't change the minds and hearts of public officials to deal with the problem and not stereotype  a population. Unfortunately, we have too much of that. Homeless people, probably are your neighbors before they became homeless. They're not criminals. They deserve to be treated with dignity and to be fair, and they are citizens of Boise. They didn't move here to be homeless. I mean, that's just another myth. They are citizens of this community.

PRENTICE: Well, he is Howard Belodoff and the shingle is still out… for now. Howard, thanks so very much and have yourself a good morning.

BELODOFF: Thank you, George.Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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