Legal rights of homeless people often upheld in courts

Apr 03 2017
Posted by: Staff
Legal rights of homeless people often upheld in courts

By: Amelia Ferrell Knisely

A majority of lawsuits in the last few years challenging the criminalization of homelessness, including evictions of homeless encampments and bans on panhandling, have resulted in favorable outcomes for homeless people and their advocates. 

According to a new report from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, since 2014, “most cases have upheld the legal rights of homeless persons to perform various life-sustaining behaviors in public places,” including:

  • 75 percent of cases challenging evictions of homeless encampments and/or seizure and destruction of homeless persons’ belongings;
  • 57 percent of cases challenging enforcement of camping and/or sleeping restrictions;
  • 100 percent of cases challenging laws restricting begging and solicitation.

The report highlights a statement of interest brief filed by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2015 that stated that making it a crime for people who are homeless to sleep in public places, particularly in the absence of sheltered alternatives, unconstitutionally punishes them for being homeless. The brief was filed in response to Bell v. City of Boise, a case brought by Idaho Legal Aid Services and the NLCHP after the city of Boise passed ordinances that made it illegal to sleep or “temporarily dwell” in public places. In its brief, the DOJ said, “If a person literally has nowhere else to go, then enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance against that person criminalizes her for being homeless.”

Also noted in the report is a ruling from a federal appeals court that applied new Supreme Court First Amendment precedent to strike down an anti-panhandling ban in multiple cities.

NLCHP Executive Director Maria Foscarinis said, “These cases demonstrate that criminalizing the survival acts of people who are forced to live outside is not a sound strategy for addressing the problem of homelessness. 

“Not only are these laws a waste of precious community resources, they also expose cities to costly litigation that they are likely to lose.” 

The report, “Housing Not Handcuffs: A Litigation Manual,” is a companion piece to the Law Center’s November 2016 report on the increase of local laws that criminally or civilly punish the activities of homeless people. The law center with more than 100 partner organizations nationwide launched the Housing Not Handcuffs Campaign in an effort to stop the criminalization of homelessness, and instead, push for effective policies that end homelessness.

According to NLCHP, the Litigation Manual analyzes recent trends and includes a how-to guide designed for legal advocates working in the nation’s courts to protect the rights of homeless people. Case summaries are included in the free online document available at 



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