The Universal Declaration of Human Rights lists food, clothing, housing, and medical care, along with the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness disability, and old age, as basic rights to which everyone is entitled. This may seem like a world view in keeping with communism, in which citizens are cared for by the state, and in fact on those grounds has never been fully accepted by Western countries such as the United States. In the United States we tend to view providing these things to people in need acts of charity best left to individuals, or if provided by the government part of a social safety net which benefits all by maintaining public health and order.
Recently, Boise Idaho and several other cities passed laws prohibiting lodging or sleeping in public places. The goal was to give police a tool to stop homeless people from camping on sidewalks, where the city felt they created a nuisance along with other health or safety problems.
Six of the homeless were plaintiffs in a case challenging the law as violating the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. The lawsuit succeeded, with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals saying the constitution does not allow prosecuting people for sleeping outdoors if there is no shelter available. The ruling stated, “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.” Last week the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal, making that ruling final.
There’s no question that tent cities and homeless people sleeping on the sidewalks can have a devastating impact on a neighborhood. Residents feel less safe, and area businesses will lose customers to fears of safety and panhandling.
How Would The Law Have Worked?
But let’s think through how this law would work. Obviously, the best solution would be to send the homeless people to shelters. The court agreed in its ruling that the city has the right to do that. So the problem in Boise and all these other cities is that alleviating homelessness with existing shelters hasn’t been successful.
Of course, the city may argue here that there is shelter space that the homeless don’t utilize. This may be for many reasons. Some are easy to empathize with and may unfortunately be well-founded, such as fear of violence or sexual abuse in the shelters. People may also be sleeping in public places for less sympathetic reasons, such as having been kicked out of shelters due to drug use, fighting, or breaking the shelter’s rules.
But in any case, we need to focus on solutions. Let’s say the city got its way with making sleeping in a public place a crime. What’s the next step? The police can ticket all the homeless. But what’s the point of the ticket? Giving indigent people a fine is ludicrous. Obviously they don’t have money to pay, and saddling them with debt will only make the prospects of them ever getting their lives back in order even harder. So if fines aren’t the answer, the city can put them in jail. The result is that jail just becomes another homeless shelter, sort of a shelter of last resort for when the regular ones are full and for people that have been kicked out.
What’s even conceivably smart about that plan? The only lasting effect of using jail as a shelter is to burden the homeless with criminal records that will again make it even harder, if not nearly impossible, for them to ever find employment and get back on their feet.
So the answer here is obvious in theory while also in practice difficult to do: Cities have to provide shelters that their homeless populations are willing and able to use. So if the current shelter system isn’t working, as evidenced by people sleeping in the streets, the city has to address the cause. This may be expensive or difficult, but it’s the only way. It may mean building more shelters, changing rules or improving security, or providing mental health facilities or addiction treatment for those who are unable to be in the existing shelters. But the city can’t throw up its hands, say it’s done all it needs to, and declare that anyone who won’t go along with the system is committing a crime.
There are many valid arguments as to why food, clothing, medicine, and shelter shouldn’t be considered human rights. Most obvious is that there’s no clear way to decide what quantity and quality these rights would entail. But I think we all can agree people should be able to sleep somewhere besides jail. When the court called this cruel and unusual punishment, it’s not clear whether the judge was thinking of human rights. But this decision is clearly a step towards ensuring the human rights of America’s homeless.
Read coverage of this law on CNN
Coverage on NPR
Photo by Steve Knutson on Unsplash.