Can a city ticket its homeless?

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.

The city of San Diego isn't commenting on the new lawsuit. City policy forbids official remarks on any type of pending litigation.

But the police department says its officers are just doing their jobs, including issuing more than 2,000 illegal lodging citations, which call for at least a $100 fine and can result in jail time.

Downtown San Diego has a homeless population of about 4,500 homeless and about 2,000 shelter beds.

As the once run-down downtown blooms with thousands of new condominiums and a new ballpark, the homeless have become more visible and less welcome.

"They're really saying 'leave,' but where can we go when all our services and resources are there?" asks plaintiff Greg Spencer. "Our shelters, food lines, medical clinic are all downtown."

The nine plaintiffs - six men and three women - could make very sympathetic defendants in any court case. They include two men honorably discharged from the US Navy, one from the US Marine Corps, and a woman who fled from an abusive home.

Since 1992, Mr. Milligan says, he has been asking the city to tell him where it would be legal for the homeless to sleep.

Frustrated by the escalating number of tickets, Milligan staged a 20-day hunger strike in front of city hall, starting in October, to demand an answer.

There is no law that cities must provide shelters, according to plaintiffs' attorney Robert Dreher. The lawsuit asks that the tickets be dismissed and the practice of fining the homeless be ended.

It also demands that the city identify a place where it would be legal for the homeless to sleep.

"That would be a great start at settling this," says Dreher.

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