By Cynthia Sewell

The U.S. Department of Justice filed a statement of interest Thursday in an ongoing lawsuit filed by several homeless people against the city of Boise over its ban on sleeping in public places.

In its filing, the federal government argues that making it a crime for people who are homeless to sleep in public places when there is insufficient shelter space unconstitutionally punishes them for being homeless.

The statement of interest was filed in Boise federal court in Bell v. City of Boise, a 2009 case brought by homeless plaintiffs who were convicted under Boise ordinances that criminalize sleeping or camping in public.

It "should be uncontroversial that punishing conduct that is a universal and unavoidable consequence of being human violates the Eighth Amendment ... 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 Justice Department filing states.

"Many homeless individuals are unable to secure shelter space because city shelters are over capacity or inaccessible to people with disabilities," Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division, said in a news release. " ... .Moreover, enforcing these ordinances is poor public policy. Needlessly pushing homeless individuals into the criminal justice system does nothing to break the cycle of poverty or prevent homelessness in the future. Instead, it imposes further burdens on scarce judicial and correctional resources, and it can have long-lasting and devastating effects on individuals' lives."

Since the lawsuit was filed, the city has amended its ordinance to prohibit police from enforcing the camping and sleeping ordinances when there is no available overnight shelter, city spokesman Mike Journee said. He said the premise of the Department of Justice's filing is "incorrect."

"It is rare that our community's service providers have no capacity -- typically only during extreme weather events. And when that does happen, city ordinance prohibits law enforcement officers from writing tickets. Those officers keep close tabs on what service resources are available and, every opportunity they get, they encourage those experiencing homelessness to take advantage of those resources," Journee said.

(c)2015 The Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho)