'Anti-homeless' laws have risen rapidly in U.S. cities. Finally, Washington responded.

Can you imagine living in fear of falling asleep? For thousands of homeless people across the country living in areas with "anti-homeless" laws, getting shut-eye could also mean getting handcuffed.




Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

But fortunately, the federal government just sent a strong, game-changing message to American cities on how they should be treating homeless folks when it comes to getting a night's rest. And, according to one expert on the matter, the message is to homeless advocates what the Supreme Court's decision on marriage equality was to those fighting for gay rights.

Last week, the Department of Justice basically said being homeless should not be treated as a crime.

You might think that'd be a no-brainer, but there's actually been a growing number of American cities making it increasingly difficult to be homeless without breaking the law.

A study from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty analyzed 187 U.S. cities between 2011 and 2014 and found criminalizing homelessness is pretty popular nowadays. Bans on sitting or lying down in certain public areas, for instance, have spiked 43%. Laws that prohibit people from sleeping in vehicles have increased by a whopping 119%.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

The problem is, laws like these don't curb homelessness. They just make it more challenging for homeless people to better their circumstances.

When a person gets arrested for, say, sleeping on a public bench, that arrest makes securing a job or a place to live down the line that much harder because employers and landlords are hesitant to trust someone with a history of run-ins with the law.

“Most homeless people aren't criminals," Eric Tars, a senior attorney for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, explained to Al Jazeera. “It's only the laws that criminalize their acts of survival that make them into that."

"So? Who cares? If someone breaks the law, it doesn't affect me!" someone (without a heart) might say.

Well, that might be a fair argument — albeit a morally bankrupt one — if it were true. But it's not. Research shows that taxpayers actually foot a larger bill when people are living without any form of shelter than if communities simply built and provided homes for those in need.

That's why it's a huge deal that the DOJ just declared Boise's ban on sleeping in public spaces as cruel and unusual punishment.

On Aug. 13, 2015, the DOJ issued a statement of interest regarding Janet F. Bell v. City of Boise. And its ramifications may be felt far outside the Gem State.

Photo by Ramin Talaie/Getty Images.

In its statement, the DOJ argues an ordinance in Boise that bans sleeping or camping in public places is unconstitutional because it violates the Eighth Amendment's protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

The DOJ claims a city can't fail to provide adequate shelter space for those in need while also outlawing 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."

And that, the department argued, is unacceptable.

While the statement itself doesn't change policy, still "it's huge," Tars told The Washington Post. The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty filed the lawsuit alongside Idaho Legal Aid Services on behalf of homeless individuals convicted of violating the local ordinance.

Coming from the federal level, the statement carries significant symbolic meaning and could influence how cities regulate homelessness moving forward.

It won't change the realities of being homeless in America overnight. But it's a meaningful step for anyone who believes homeless people should be treated like actual human beings rather than criminals.

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