In a welcome decision from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, homeless people in Boise, Idaho won’t be prosecuted for sleeping on the streets just because a shelter happens to be full. (Attorneys said there are roughly 4,500 homeless people in the city but only 700 available beds in shelters.)
It may seem like common sense not to arrest people who don’t have other options, but police were claiming there was availability at local shelters. The Ninth Circuit, however, said that wasn’t the full story, in part because some of the shelters had religious requirements to stay there:
The 9th Circuit, though, cited evidence that some shelters limited the number of days a homeless person could stay or turned away people who arrived past certain hours.
Others required a religious commitment, the court said.
“A city cannot, via the threat of prosecution, coerce an individual to attend religion-based treatment programs,” Judge Marsha S. Berzon wrote for the court.
In Boise specifically, there are three shelters that are privately run. One is secular. The other two are run by Boise Rescue Mission, a Christian group that pushes faith on everyone who stays with them. (One of those shelters specifically kicked people out for up to 30 days if they didn’t participate in the “Discipleship Program” within a month of arriving there.)
So the government was effectively telling homeless people they would be punished for being in the street… when the only alternative may have been a faith-based shelter. The Court correctly and unanimously said that was an unconstitutional predicament.
The rule is now in effect across nine states covered by the Ninth Circuit barring further appeals.