City Of Boise Limits Police Action On Homeless, ACLU Not Satisfied

Sep 25, 2014

The Boise City Council this week changed its ordinance which makes it illegal to sleep in public places. The council voted not to enforce its “camping” ordinance when homeless shelters are full. That comes after police this summer cracked down on people sleeping on the sidewalk near some of the city’s shelters and homeless advocates and others criticized the move.

A homeless man's belongings outside Boise's Corpus Christi day shelter
Credit Emilie Ritter Saunders / Boise State Public Radio

Leo Morales, interim director of the ACLU of Idaho, says the decision to not always enforce Boise’s camping law is a positive step, but it should have been repealed entirely. The ACLU sent the city a letter stating its position before the council voted. For Morales, saying ‘you can’t sleep here’ violates basic civil liberties.

“When you begin to criminalize certain activities, you begin to strip away some of these fundamental civil rights, human rights of individuals, not just those that are houseless, but for all community members as well,” Morales says.  

Morales wants Boise to focus on addressing the root causes of homelessness and work on increasing access to housing instead of what he sees as punishing people for being homeless.

City spokesman Vince Trimboli says having the ability to prohibit public camping is essential to promoting public welfare.

“We need to provide effective management of public property within the city and to provide people who live in the city of Boise the ability to feel safe,” Trimboli says.

He says when people sleep on the streets it makes other residents feel less safe. And he believes it’s unsafe for the people doing the camping. He says Boise police have had reports of fights and battery among the people sleeping near the shelters.  

For now the ACLU of Idaho is waiting to see how the city implements its revised camping policy.  But the ACLU’s letter to the city includes a reminder about what happened last time the two disagreed over homeless rights.  That was when the city passed an ordinance that would have restricted homeless people’s ability to carry signs asking for money.

“It was just one year ago that the ACLU of Idaho last sent you an open letter, and it was about the same subject as this one: the City’s seemingly persistent push to punish vulnerable families and put veterans and people with disabilities in jail just because of their poverty. Last time, we wrote to warn you that the anti-solicitation ordinance you were then considering was unconstitutional and counterproductive. Fortunately, that ordinance was never enforced, due to a federal court order we helped obtain. Unfortunately, it took expensive litigation and an injunction to protect the civil and human rights of the least among us in Boise. ” - ACLU of Idaho

Find reporter Adam Cotterell on Twitter @cotterelladam

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