Boise Case Tests Limits of Policing the Homeless

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A decade-old case from Boise, Id., a step away from the Supreme Court, examines whether it’s a crime for someone to sleep outside when they have nowhere else to go. The suit arose when a half-dozen homeless people claimed that rules prohibiting camping on public property violated the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment. The plaintiffs prevailed at the appellate level, putting the city at the center of a national debate on how to tackle homelessness, the New York Times reports. Boise has asked the Supreme Court to take the case, a decision that could come within days. Lauren McLean, the City Council president and top vote-getter in an inconclusive November election, opposes the city’s quest for leeway in policing the homeless. She says the solution should come from tackling poverty. Her opponent, Mayor David Bieter, seeking his fifth term, was unapologetic about fighting the lawsuit. Echoing the position of various Western cities that support Boise, Bieter argues that the ability to issue citations for sleeping outside is a little-used but necessary tool to keep homelessness in check.

“I’m really concerned when I see Seattle or Portland or San Francisco,” he says. “I go there and I see a city that’s overwhelmed by the problem, and people tell me all the time, ‘Don’t allow us to be like those other cities.’” Boise, a city of 230,000 whose modest downtown does little to obscure the mountain views, is an odd point of origin for such a debate. Its annual homeless count has found about 50 to 100 unsheltered people for the past seven years. The city’s decision to appeal Boise v. Martin has elevated homelessness to a focus of an increasingly ugly campaign. Third-party mailers have put McLean’s picture next to a homeless encampment with the words, “Lauren McLean’s Future Boise.”

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