Last month the Department of Justice filed a statement of interest in a Boise, ID, case concerning an ordinance that bans sleeping or “camping” in public places. In the past few decades, many U.S. cities have adopted similar ordinances—including Denver.
The following is from the DOJ filing:
When adequate shelter space exists, individuals have a choice about whether or not to sleep in public. However, when adequate shelter space does not exist, there is no meaningful distinction between the status of being homeless and the conduct of sleeping in public. Sleeping is a life-sustaining activity—i.e., it must occur at some time in some place. If a person literally has nowhere else to go, then enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance against that person criminalizes her for being homeless.
The DOJ statement went on to argue that camping bans violate a person’s constitutional rights, specifically the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel or unusual punishment.
In the weeks after its filing, I read many editorial responses to the DOJ statement ranging in tone from elated to nervous to angry.
The Denver Post editorial board responded to the statement with an editorial worrying that the Feds “misread” city camping bans. According to that editorial, “to argue, as the Justice Department and homeless activists often do, that enforcement of anti-camping ordinances amounts to criminalizing homelessness is misleading and glib.” The authors then attempted to delineate between the different types of people who might sleep outside, listing, “a transient passing through town” and “a local homeless alcoholic” as two examples of people experiencing homelessness. I wonder if the stories of Fatima Kiass (page 6), Mark Reay (page 7), and Chris and his dog George (page 8) would change the editors’ minds about these stereotypes.
At the heart of that editorial is the belief that different classes of people exist, and that only some deserve access to public spaces. To argue against camping bans is to argue against the criminalization of homelessness—and there is nothing misleading or glib about that argument.
I’ve heard both officially and anecdotally that the DPD isn’t frequently ticketing for “urban camping”—and that’s good. I’ve met some wonderful Denver police officers who genuinely care about reaching out to people on the streets…and I’ve also heard the stories of people on the streets who weren’t lucky enough to run into one of those officers.
The DOJ filing also stated that, “The United States has a broad interest in ensuring that justice is applied fairly, regardless of wealth or status.” Doesn’t the fact that Denver’s camping ban is only occasionally enforced suggest that it’s not being applied fairly?
The author of another pro-ban editorial insisted that it was inhumane to let people sleep outside. This misses the point. Opponents of urban camping bans aren’t advocating for letting people sleep outside; they’re disagreeing with the punishment.
Like many U.S. cities, Denver does not have enough space to shelter the homeless. Surely it is cruel and unusual to punish people for sleeping outside when they have no other options. ■