SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – The ACLU of Southern California filed a lawsuit today against the city of Santa Barbara for intentionally violating the constitutional rights of disabled homeless people by criminalizing them through enforcement of its “anti-sleeping ordinance,” while giving them no reasonable alternative to sleeping on the streets. The lawsuit – on behalf of certain homeless residents -- was filed in federal district court in Los Angeles.

On April 1, more than 100 homeless people, including many with physical and/or mental disabilities, will be compelled to leave safe and secure shelter beds at Santa Barbara’s Casa Esperanza emergency shelter because the city permits the shelter to operate only from December through March. These chronically homeless individuals -- who have mental or physical disabilities and have been homeless repeatedly or for an extended period of time -- will have no alternative to sleeping on the streets or in other public places, and will be at serious risk for being cited for illegal activity by police.

Santa Barbara’s anti-sleeping ordinance makes it illegal for any person to sleep between sunset and 6 a.m. on any public beach, street, sidewalk or public way. In enforcing this ordinance, the Santa Barbara Police Department routinely intimidates and harasses disabled homeless people with interrogations, warrant checks, unauthorized searches and arrests, and citations. Yet city officials have acknowledged a serious lack of beds and resources for its chronically homeless residents. A conservative estimate puts the number of chronically homeless people in Santa Barbara County at nearly 950.

“By citing and arresting mentally ill or physically disabled homeless persons for sleeping in public places when there are no reasonable alternatives available to them, the city engages in arbitrary and unreasonable conduct that shocks the conscience and bears no reasonable relation to public health of safety,” said Mark Rosenbaum, legal director for the ACLU/SC. “Essentially, the city and its law-enforcement personnel treat the chronically homeless as if they were outlaws.”

Accrual of citations and fines can affect an individual’s ability to renew a driver’s license and receive state benefits. Accrued citations or the failure to appear at citation or misdemeanor hearings can lead to an arrest warrant and incarceration. An arrest for a homeless individual is particularly devastating because it may result not only in the loss of liberty but also in the loss of all possessions, including warm clothing and critically important documents necessary for identification and government benefits.

Already this year, 11 homeless people have died on the streets of Santa Barbara – a tragic measure of how hazardous the conditions on the streets there are for homeless individuals.

“Closing scarce shelter beds at a time when there are no alternatives is indefensible,” said Lori Rifkin, staff attorney for the ACLU/SC. “Study after study in cities across the country has shown that providing housing with services for homeless people is effective at ending homelessness, and costs less than leaving homeless people on the streets.”

Santa Barbara is the second affluent beach city to be sued in recent months by the ACLU/SC over the treatment of homeless people. In December, the ACLU/SC filed suit against the Orange County city of Laguna Beach over a similar anti-sleeping ordinance that criminalized chronically homeless people. Earlier this week, the Laguna Beach City Council responded to that lawsuit by repealing its anti-sleeping ordinance.

In Santa Barbara, city officials have periodically grappled with the issue of homelessness since at least 1984. At that time, the city was urged to repeal its anti-sleeping ordinance, but the city ignored that recommendation. In February 2009, a report by the Santa Barbara City Council Subcommittee on Homelessness and Community Relations acknowledged “the strong need for more shelter beds for vulnerable populations.” Yet Santa Barbara’s anti-sleeping ordinance remains in effect, and its strategies to address homelessness remain targeted at reducing the visibility of homeless individuals rather than reducing homelessness.