Court cases fighting the criminalization of homelessness succeeding in court

Cases that end up in court challenging discriminatory ordinances and laws against homelessness are proving to be successful, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty stated in a recent report.

More than half of the cases that have challenged camping bans and sleeping restrictions in court have been successful, the report finds, and all cases challenging panhandling and solicitation bans have been successful on the grounds of the First Amendment since 2014.

Evictions of homeless encampments resulting in the loss or destruction of property have also been successfully fought in court 75 percent of the time since 2014, the report found.

The report, “Housing Not Handcuffs: A Litigation Manual,” is in response to a study that looked at the criminalization of homelessness across the country and provides attorneys with several case summaries they can point to when advocating for their homeless clients in court.

In two of the cases cited by the report, judges found that it was cruel and unusual to punish people for camping outside when they had nowhere else to sleep and therefore ruled that enforcement of anti-camping ordinances violated protections under the Eighth Amendment.

Specifically, the City of Boise in Idaho and the City of Eureka in California were told to stop enforcing their anti-camping ordinances until they could properly accommodate the homeless in their community, according to the report and court records.

Lawyers in Eureka were able to successfully argue that homeless people outnumbered emergency shelter beds “by a factor of nearly three to one,” according to court documents.

The Department of Justice filed a statement of interest in the Boise case, firmly stating that enforcing anti-camping ordinances criminalizes homelessness “if a person literally has nowhere else to go.”

In cases where cities and towns tried to criminalize panhandling and soliciting people for money, a 2015 Supreme Court ruling was cited, which said that content-based speech was protected under the First Amendment.

In Springfield, Illinois, the panhandling ordinance in the city’s downtown district tried to restrict people from verbally asking for money, claiming it was threatening to the public, particularly at night.

Worcester, Massachusetts, had two panhandling ordinances before the court after local police arrested four homeless folks for violating an aggressive panhandling ordinance, according to court documents.

In both cases the court had to rule against the ordinances because of the Reed v. Town of Gilbert Supreme Court decision in 2015.

Cases where homeless sweeps, or the clearing of homeless encampments from public places, resulted in the loss of personal property have also led to changes in policies locally.

The City of Pomona in California had to settle a case after 14 people lost valuables, including identification cards, birth certificates and food stamp cards after a sweep in 2016. The city agreed to give them priority to permanent housing resources as a result, the report found.

A federal court ordered the City of Los Angeles to develop proper storage procedures when conducting sweeps and taking belongings, as the Fourth Amendment protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures. Equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment has also been successfully argued in similar cases.

The report also notes when it’s appropriate to challenge a provision or ordinance in court and what to take into account before filing your legal complaint on behalf of a homeless person.

To learn more about the process and to read the report in its entirety, visit www.housingnothandcuffs.org.

Jordan Frias

Jordan Frias is an editorial assistant at Boston Herald and a contributor of Spare Change News. He is vice president of the New England Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and a graduate of Northeastern University’s School of Journalism.

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