Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Can a City Ticket Its Homeless?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Can a City Ticket Its Homeless?

Article excerpt

Nine homeless people who have been cited for illegal sleeping - one while she waited in vain for a shelter bed - have filed a class- action lawsuit in San Diego federal court.

They say the San Diego Police Department has violated their constitutional rights by ticketing them for sleeping in public. The real problem, they insist, is that there is not enough room for them at local shelters.

"People wouldn't be sleeping outside if there were any shelter beds," says Larry Milligan, an activist for the homeless. "They are being persecuted for their status, for being homeless, not for committing a crime, and that violates their civil rights.

"For years, we've been asking the city: where is it safe and legal for them to sleep and the city has no answer," he adds. "You have to sleep to stay alive, whether there's a bed for you or not."

San Diego has issued more tickets for homelessness in the past two years than in the previous five combined.

And it's not the only city that has been ticketing the homeless for sleeping in public. Other cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas, Milwaukee, several in Florida, and even Halifax, Nova Scotia, have issued such citations in the past few years.

The tickets are a gesture that some have criticized as meaningless, pointing out that the homeless are often impoverished, and that as they have no permanent address, any effort to collect fines would most likely prove either difficult or impossible.

But this suit is the first constitutional challenge of such ticketing, and were the court to rule in favor of the homeless, such a decision could have national importance, says Tulian Ozdeger, staff attorney for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

"Throughout the country there aren't enough shelter beds," she says. "But California cities are targeting the homeless more."

A ruling in favor of the homeless in San Diego would not only apply to the whole appellate district, but would also be persuasive in courts all over the nation, she says. …

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