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Court to cities: Public sleeping is not a crime

Cities in the West are now on notice: Provide shelter for homeless people or stop arresting them for sleeping in public places. That has been an issue in Ashland, and both Ashland and Medford are working to increase available shelter, especially in the winter months.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that Boise, Idaho, violated the constitutional rights of six homeless people when it arrested them for breaking city ordinances against sleeping in public spaces. The six plaintiffs filed their suit in 2009.

The ruling should not have come as a surprise. The 9th Circuit already had held that “a city that does not provide adequate shelter for the destitute cannot constitutionally enforce against them a law prohibiting sitting, lying or sleeping in public places.” But that case was settled out of court, so the ruling did not establish a precedent.

Tuesday’s ruling does. A three-judge panel of the court said Boise’s sleeping ban violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The court also said the city ordinance was unconstitutional even if shelter beds were available, because two of the city’s three shelters required some participation in religious programs, effectively discriminating against people with different beliefs.

That’s not to say that cities are powerless to enforce any laws affecting the homeless. Ordinances banning urinating or defecating in public, harassing passersby and public intoxication, for instance, are certainly reasonable. No one is arguing a constitutional right to engage in those behaviors. But merely existing, and sleeping, in public spaces can no longer be criminalized, the court said.

Ashland in particular has a history of citing people for illegal camping, handing out 129 tickets in 2015, 145 in 2016 and more than 300 through October 2017.

Even before Tuesday’s ruling, cities have focused on unwelcome behavior by excluding specific individuals from downtown areas after multiple citations. Ashland and Medford both adopted “exclusion zones” for this purpose.

Those measures have limited usefulness, because they do not address the need for shelter and merely cause homeless people to move from one place to another. Nonprofit agencies and volunteers in both cities are working to find solutions, but even temporary shelter is an expensive proposition.

Ashland and Medford are both involved in efforts to increase the amount of shelter available. Those efforts must continue.

City officials already knew they needed to find a better way to address homelessness than by making it a crime. Tuesday’s court ruling gives that the force of law.

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