True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.
— The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., April 4, 1967
Early in August in 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a statement of interest in the case of Janet F. Bell et al v. the City of Boise, Idaho et al — a class action lawsuit filed by several homeless people in Boise convicted of violating certain local ordinances that prohibit camping and sleeping in public outdoor places
The statement argues that due to the fact that homelessness often befalls children, families, veterans and the elderly, many of whom end up so because of “persistent physical or behavioral health conditions that neither they nor the communities in which they live have sufficient services to accommodate,” or circumstances beyond their control such as familial estrangement, domestic violence or human trafficking, and because shelters are often overcrowded, which makes it difficult to find a safe place to sleep, the Department of Justice rules that laws criminalizing sleeping in a public space such as the cabin of a car, under a bridge, on the sidewalk or inside an abandoned building is a violation of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which provides against cruel and unusual punishment — therefore, unconstitutional.
The statement from the Department of Justice takes into account some alarming data, particularly the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s findings in the 2014 Annual Homeless Assessment Report that as of January of that year, 578,424 individuals — roughly as much as the population of Albuquerque, New Mexico — were homeless on any given night with approximately 153,000 of those people — about as much as the population of Macon, Georgia — caught without adequate shelter, which exposes them to injury, violence, crime, illness, hypothermia, unwanted attention from law enforcement or any combination of the above.
Without a doubt, it is a step in the right direction for the Department of Justice to intervene against the needless criminalization of homeless people sleeping in public when they are caught without shelter. However, while this measure may attempt to protect homeless people from being threatened, attacked or arrested by police, the better solution would be to build a more comprehensive safety net that eliminates and prevents homelessness and gives more purchasing power to ordinary citizens. On that note, suddenly raising wages in the retail and fast food industries, where many workers are so underpaid that they have to enroll in food stamp programs to keep their heads above water, suddenly seems like even more of a good idea, along with other laws intended to give equal rights to demographics that over the course of history, have been persecuted by the more privileged class.