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Cities can’t prosecute homeless people sleeping on the street: federal court rules

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San Francisco, who is struggling with the growing problem of homelessness

The City by the Bay spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year trying to help an estimated 7,500 homeless people, as critics say, what is needed is not more money, but a bold new approach.

Cities can’t prosecute people for sleeping on the streets as they have nowhere else to go because it amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, which is unconstitutional, a federal appeals court said Tuesday.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on the part of six homeless persons in Boise, Idaho, who sued the city in 2009 about a local regulation that prohibited sleeping in public areas. The ruling could affect several other cities in the US. the West have similar laws.

It comes as many other places on the west coast have to contend with homelessness, caused by the rising cost of housing and income inequality.

When the Boise lawsuit was filed, lawyers for the homeless residents said that as many as 4,500 people had no place to sleep in Idaho, the capital and the homeless only had about 700 available beds or mats. The case bounced back and forth to court for a year, and Boise changed the rules in 2014 to say homeless people could not be prosecuted for sleeping outside when shelters were full.

But that is not solving the problem, the lawyers said, because Boise homes for the limit of the number of days that homeless residents can stay. Two of the three shelters also require some form of religious participation for some programs, making those shelters are not suitable for people with different beliefs, the homeless, residents said.

The three judges for the 9th Circuit found that the childcare rules meant the homeless would still be at risk of persecution, even on days when beds were open. The judges also said religious programming are intertwined in some shelter programs was a problem.

“A city can not through the threat of prosecution, to compel an individual to attend a religion-based treatment programs in accordance with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment,” Judge Marsha Berzon wrote.

The biggest problem was that the city’s rule violated the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment, the court found. The amendment limits what the government can criminalize, it said.

“As a result, just as the state is not an offence is the state of being ‘homeless people in public places,” the state may not ‘criminal behavior that is an inevitable consequence of homeless persons — namely sitting, lying, or sleeping on the street,'” Berzon wrote.

The judgment shows that it is time for Boise officials to start proposing “real solutions”, said Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness And Poverty, whose lawyers were among those that the homeless residents.

In 2007, the 9th Circuit ruled in favor of the homeless inhabitants of Los Angeles, and find that as long as there are more homeless residents than there are shelter beds, law that the prohibition on sleeping outside was unconstitutional. Both sides later reached an agreement and the whole case was eventually thrown away.

In 2009, a federal judge said a Portland, Oregon, policy aimed at preventing people from sitting or lying on public sidewalks was unconstitutional. Portland officials now also need to the campers of at least 24 hours before cleaning or moving of non-recognised camps.

A state judge rejected a similar anti-camping law in Everett, Washington.

Sara Rankin, a professor at the Seattle University School of Law and the director of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project, said the ruling will serve as a wake-up call for local governments, forcing them to invest in adequate supportive housing for the chronically homeless.

“I think that in the end common sense,” Rankin said of the ruling. “There are certain life-saving activities that people can’t survive without doing it. It is really an important recognition that people have to be able to legally exist and survive somewhere.”

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