ACLU challenging Boulder's practice of ticketing homeless people for sleeping outside

The ACLU is challenging a Boulder ordinance that penalizes homeless people for sleeping outside under the cover of blankets -- even when the city's homeless shelter is full.

That's what happened to David Madison. He was ticketed last November under the city's controversial camping ban for sleeping outside in a sleeping bag on a night where the temperature dropped to eleven degrees.

According to the ACLU, Madison tried to get a bed at the shelter, but it was full. Forced to sleep outside, he attempted to keep warm with the help of a sleeping bag. But the Boulder Municipal Court ruled that Madison's sleeping bag constituted "shelter" and convicted him of violating the city's camping ban. The ban prohibits sleeping outside with "any cover or protection from the elements other than clothing."

The ACLU is appealing Madison's conviction. In a letter sent to the Boulder City Council today, the organization calls it "unfair and unconstitutional."

"Ultimately, cities have to confront the fact that there are people who are homeless," says Mark Silverstein, the ACLU's legal director. "The wrong solution is to treat people as criminals because they're sleeping outdoors at night with a blanket or sleeping bag. It's wrong (and) it's cruel."

Estimates provided to the city council show that Boulder police officers have issued more than 1,650 tickets over the past four years for camping-ban violations. The council briefly considered softening the ban this year at the behest of homeless advocates, including Madison. But, according to the Boulder Daily Camera, council members switched directions and decided to strengthen the ordinance instead.

The ACLU's letter urges the council to reverse itself again and "make a simple, necessary and humane change to existing law... The city of Boulder has no legitimate interest in continuing to ticket, prosecute and punish its homeless residents solely because a person covered himself or herself from the elements."

Boulder isn't the only Colorado city that makes a habit of ticketing the homeless for sleeping outside. Earlier this year, the Colorado Springs city council passed a similar anti-camping ordinance. Only one councilman, Tom Gallagher, opposed the ban, and for a very personal reason -- he was once homeless himself.

"I understand that homeless people need other people to give them a chance," Gallagher told Westword in February.

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar