You Can’t Criminalize Homeless People With Nowhere Else To Go, Court Rules

In a victory for the homeless community, a federal court decided that cities cannot harass people who sleep on the street when they have nowhere else to go.

The three judges of the 9th Circuit believed punishing people for living on the street constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, which is forbidden under the Eighth Amendment, since it’s not as if these people have alternative options.

Homeless residents first sued the city of Boise, Idaho back in 2009, and the case has ascended the legal system since then. While Boise insisted people on the street should instead head to shelters for the night, the plaintiffs astutely pointed out that the shelters had around 700 beds, well short of the local homeless population of 4,500.

What’s more, the shelters limited the number of nights that people could use them – what are the chronically homeless supposed to do after using their number of days?

This particular case also delved into freedom of religion issues because two of the three shelters available to the people of Boise included religious components and teachings. Should the homeless people not of that particular faith have to subject themselves to those rituals just to stay off the street? The judges sure didn’t think so.

“A city cannot, via the threat of prosecution, coerce an individual to attend religion-based treatment programs consistently with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment,” wrote Judge Marsha Berzon.

Berzon and her colleagues’ decision fell short of declaring that cities must provide shelter to homeless inhabitants – just that shelter had to be available if the police were to arrest or issue citations to people for lounging in public areas.

Many cities have passed laws to practically turn homelessness into a crime, which ignores the larger problem. Fortunately, the judicial system is getting wise to these underhanded tactics. In other states like Oregon, Washington and California, courts have reached similar conclusions to this recent one – people have to have a choice in where they’re staying before you can tell them they can’t stay there.

This decision is even more crucial when you consider that the epidemic of homelessness is not going away, particularly in light of the soaring costs of housing across the country. The wealth gap is only spreading, and people are being shut out of the economy – and, in turn, housing.

At least cities, especially those on the West Coast where the 9th Circuit Court reigns supreme, will have to stop bothering its homeless people with tickets and nights in prison for just cozying up on a park bench to get some sleep. Any city officials that troubled by the sight of homeless people should take this court decision as a motivation to work to provide reasonable shelter situations for such residents.

Photo credit: Thinkstock


Marie W
Marie W13 days ago


Dave f
Past Member 5 months ago

Believe it or not but most working class people are only one month away from homelessness if they lost their job today.

Barbara S
Past Member 6 months ago


Karen H
Karen H6 months ago

Jenn C, the public land you're talking about would include city parks. City councils don't want homeless people living in their parks. As for marching off into the woods to build a little shanty or lean-to and live off the land, you’ve got to be kidding. What about bathroom facilities and electricity? How do you live off the land (planting your own crops) in the dead of winter? That's "out of sight, out of mind" thinking. Get them out of town and we'll forget about them. Numerous research studies have confirmed that long-term housing assistance not only successfully reduces homelessness, it is also less expensive than shelter and other institutional care. Need ideas? Here are some solutions that have worked.

Lesa D
Past Member 7 months ago

thank you Kevin...

Mary B
Mary B7 months ago

Jenn C public land doesn't mean the homeless can go and live on it. Not to mention they don't have the mentle or physical capacity for home steading. Or the tools or materials or the no how to even start, or the means to get there, I mean come on, your statement is so far off I can't believe you would even say it. We need a form of government that will deal with the on going problems that are too big for any one person to fix. And it's LONG over due.

Jack Y
Jack Y7 months ago


Jack Y
Jack Y7 months ago


Chad Anderson
Chad A7 months ago

Thank you.

Deborab S
Deborab S7 months ago

Instead of treating people like criminals because they are homeless, why don't they ORE shelter and not turn them out into the streets? When t hey run out of , they should find some cots to set them up for people coming in. This is no joke, to be homeless
In the long term, it should be considered why people are homeless. That is long term
There is never enough housing or shelters