St. Louis May be Violating 8th Amendment Rights of the homeless

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According to the St. Louis Post Dispatch, the City of St. Louis is forcing homeless people in tents near the Biddle House, the City's Homeless shelter, to move.

The City plans to seize tents and any other property of the homeless on October 27 at 10 am per a notice. 

The City of St. Louis has a history of attacking people at their weakest moment. Kicking a man when he's down, defies basic humanitarian code of ethics, and detract from the reputation of the City. A homeless man in St. Louis explains how he ended up on the street and talks about what it's like to be homeless.

Constitutional Violations

The City of St. Louis may be violating the 8th amendment which states, "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted." In a similar case, Bell v. City of Boise, the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a Statement of Interest (SOI) arguing that, where shelter space is unavailable, compliance with these ordinances has become impossible for the homeless, such that their “enforcement . . . amounts to the criminalization of homelessness, in violation of the Eighth Amendment.” 

Writing for the DOJ, Civil Rights Division Attorney Sharon Brett noted, “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.”

In 2006, the Boise City Council passed an ordinance prohibiting “disorderly conduct,” which was defined to include, among other things, sleeping in public without the permission of the owner or person in control of the space. In 2009, it passed another ordinance criminalizing “camping” — “the use of public property as a temporary or permanent place of dwelling . . . or as a living accommodation at any time between sunset and sunrise . . . .” That same year, several individuals who either were or had been homeless in Boise and who had been cited or arrested for violating one or both of these ordinances,  filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho. They alleged that the City’s enforcement of the Camping and Sleeping Ordinances against the homeless violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

The DOJ urged the court to adopt the reasoning of Jones v. City of Los Angeles, where the Ninth Circuit held unconstitutional the enforcement of a Los Angeles ordinance that criminalized sitting, lying, or sleeping in public when there was inadequate shelter space. The Boise case was dismissed on standing grounds but it continues to have a profound impact on the criminalization of homelessness and particularly on the enforcement of camping bans by local municipalities.

The City of St. Louis does not have adequate space to house the homeless and recently forced the closure of New Life Evangelistic Center which provided homeless shelter for decades. The City of St. Louis is probably creating and enforcing ordinances that illegally infringe on the constitutional rights of homeless people. It's just a matter of time before someone files a federal lawsuit against the City.

It's time we got serious about pulling our money out of incarceration and putting it into systems that foster healthy communities. Hundreds of thousands of people are locked up not because of any dangerous behavior, but because of problems like mental illness, substance use disorders, and homelessness, which should be dealt with outside the criminal justice system. Services like drug treatment and affordable housing cost less and can have a better record of success.

See what happened when two Rams football players spent 24 hours homeless in St. Louis.

Housing First

Instead of criminalizing behavior necessary for survival, maybe the City of St. Louis could adopt a house first model that focuses on providing housing.  Housing First is an approach to quickly and successfully connect individuals and families experiencing homelessness to permanent housing without preconditions and barriers to entry, such as sobriety, treatment or service participation requirements. Other cities have found it's much cheaper to provide housing than to criminalize the homeless. The State of Utah reduced its homeless population by 91% by implementing housing first and saved money in the process.

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