Local Camping Bans May be Unconstitutional
Federal Government Weighs in on Lawsuit Challenging Anti-Homeless Measures
Boise, Idaho is currently facing a lawsuit from the ACLU over a municipal camping ban. It is similar to the camping bans in both Ashland and Medford, all of which are targeted at the homeless.
But on August 6, in a move that is likely to have ramifications beyond Boise, the Department of Justice issued an official Statement of Interest on the lawsuit arguing that camping bans are unconstitutional.
“When adequate shelter space exists, individuals have a choice about whether or not to sleep in public,” the DOJ wrote, “However, when adequate shelter space does not exist, there is no meaningful distinction between the status of being homeless and the conduct of 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, according to the DOJ, is a violation of the Eighth Amendment, against excessive fines and cruel and unusual punishment.
The Messenger asked both Medford Mayor Gary Wheeler and Ashland City Administrator Dave Kanner if the DOJ’s statement on the subject would affect their cities’ camping bans.
Kanner said he does not yet know, but has referred the matter to Ashland City Attorney David H. Lohman. Wheeler did not respond.
Between Medford’s regular police sweeps along the Bear Creek Greenway, and Ashland being a major feature on the vagabond circuit, removal of camping bans could have major ramifications, bringing forward the possiblities of the respective cities finally addressing the
root causes of homelessness instead of sweeping it under the rug, or new attempts to further criminalize poverty through creative legal gymnastics that will punt the issue yet again. Considering the contentiousness of the issue, it could also throw local civics into dissarray.
Or nothing could happen.
The Messenger will continue to follow developments on this story.
[Editor’s note: After we went to press, Ashland City Administrator Dave Kanner followed up with more info. Here is his response, which we will also print as an addendum in our next issue: “What I can tell you is that the Justice Department statement, by itself, does not impact Ashland’s camping ban. The impact would come from a court ruling, since Oregon is in the same federal district as Idaho. Without knowing what a potential court ruling would say, it’s not possible to know how the camping ban would be impacted.” ]