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Supreme Court looking at constitutional right of homeless to sleep on sidewalk

Screengrab ABC 7 Los Angeles

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These are fun times to be alive in America, as we may soon learn whether we have the right to sleep on the sidewalk of our choice.

The U.S. Supreme Court met on Friday to consider for the first time if homeless people have a constitutional right to pull up their favorite piece of concrete for a good night’s sleep, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The justices were to hear an appeal of a controversial ruling last year by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that it was cruel and unusual punishment to enforce criminal laws against homeless people if a city does not offer enough shelters as an alternative, the Times reported.

More from the newspaper:

The appeals court’s opinion quoted Anatole France’s famous comment that “the law, in all its majestic equality, forbids the rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges,” and from there, it announced a principle of human rights to strike down city laws that “criminalize the simple act of sleeping outside on public property.”

As precedent, Judge Marsha Berzon cited parts of a 1968 Supreme Court opinion in which several justices questioned whether “chronic alcoholics” may be punished for being drunk in public if they cannot control themselves.

“This principle compels the conclusion that the 8th Amendment prohibits the imposition of criminal penalties for sitting, sleeping or lying outside on public property for homeless individuals who cannot obtain shelter,” she wrote for the three-judge panel. She described the ruling as “narrow…That is, so long as there no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors on public property.”

 

The 9th Circuit’s ruling struck down a Boise, Idaho, ordinance making it a misdemeanor to camp or sleep on sidewalks, parks or other places without permission.

Attorney Theane D. Evangelis, who represents Boise, said the court’s ruling was “both nonsensical and unworkable.”

“The creation of a de facto constitutional right to live on the sidewalks and in parks will cripple the ability of more than 1,600 municipalities in the 9th Circuit to maintain the health and safety of their communities,” she wrote in City of Boise v. Martin. “Public encampments … have spawned crime and violence, incubated disease and created environmental hazards that threaten the lives and well-being both of those living on the streets and the public at large.”

Homelessness is a prevailing problem in many American cities.

In Los Angeles County, there are nearly 60,000 homeless people, according to ABC 7 Los Angeles.

Three-quarters of these people are unsheltered and “most” are in tents, makeshift shelters or on the street.”

The Rev. Andy Bales, who runs the Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles, sides with the homeless.

“The key phrase in that is ‘If there is nowhere to go.’ You cannot sweep people off the streets,” he told ABC 7.

“We need to strike a delicate balance. We need to be very humane and treat people with respect but I also disagree with the advocates who say that homeless people should be able to sleep anywhere they darn well please,” said Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer.

The ABC affiliate said it may be several weeks before we know for certain whether the Supreme Court has decided to take up this case.

Tom Tillison

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