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Prosecuting homeless people for sleeping on the streets when there is no shelter available is a form of cruel and unusual punishment that violates the Constitution, a federal appeals court said earlier this month.

The case stems from two ordinances in Boise, Idaho, that make it a crime to sleep or camp in buildings, streets and other public places. Six homeless people who had been convicted under the laws sued the city in 2009, saying their constitutional rights had been violated.

After years of legal wrangling, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit said in a 32-page opinion on Tuesday that Boise’s ordinances “criminalize the simple act of sleeping outside on public property, whether bare or with a blanket or other basic bedding.” The panel added that “a municipality cannot criminalize such behavior consistently with the Eighth Amendment when no sleeping space is practically available in any shelter.”

In their summary of the opinion, the judges wrote, “As long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.”

Homelessness continues to be a national crisis, affecting millions of people each year, including a rising number of families. Homeless people, like all people, must engage in activities such as sleeping or sitting down in order to survive. Yet, in communities across the nation, these harmless, unavoidable behaviors are treated as criminal activity under laws that criminalize homelessness.

According to the last published Oregon Housing and Community Services’ Point in Time report, in 2017 there were more than 14,000 people counted as people experiencing homelessness throughout the state. In Coos County, it was estimated that there were 397 people identified as homeless around the county, many of them children.

A lack of affordable housing is the leading cause of homelessness, and the problem is worsening. Rising rents, historically low vacancy rates, and the continued decline of federally subsidized housing have led to a 7.2 million unit shortage of affordable rental units available to our nation’s lowest income renters. This means that for every 100 extremely poor households in the country, only 31 will find affordable and available rental units.

There are fewer available shelter beds than homeless people in major cities across the nation. In some places, the gap between available space and human need is significant, leaving hundreds or, in some cases, thousands of people with no choice but to struggle for survival in outdoor, public places.

For the cities of Coos Bay and North Bend, there are no current ordinances that prohibit people from sleeping outside in public spaces. North Bend City Administrator Terence O’Connor said the majority of cities with such ordinances typically tend to be in larger communities. However, both cities have ordinances against sleeping in public parks.

We feel for those those who advocate the use of law enforcement as a means to curtail homelessness. Some residents feel helpless and fear for their safety. Many feel this decision ties the hands of police officers in protecting the public. However, many of these people have no homes, because they simply don't make enough money to pay for high rental costs. They are not criminals, they are poor. They have jobs, pay taxes and contribute to society. Some are mentally ill and have no access to adequate mental health care.

This is indeed a complex, distressing problem. We laud efforts by those who aspire bring more affordable housing and good paying jobs to the Bay Area. While we support the Ninth Circuit's decision, what's really needed is more discussion and action to humanely resolve homelessness.


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