The American Civil Liberties Union is suing the city of Santa Barbara on behalf of the homeless population, claiming city officials have committed “unconscionable” violations in prosecuting transients.

The ACLU filed the federal lawsuit over the weekend in the hopes of overturning the city’s bans on sleeping in public and camping at parks and beaches. Additionally, the suit will seek a court order mandating the city keep all 200 beds in the Casa Esperanza homeless shelter open past April 1, when it is scheduled for its annual closure until December.

With 11 deaths among the homeless thus far this year, the ACLU has chosen Santa Barbara as its latest target in an ongoing effort to reduce the amount of restrictions on the homeless. Early this month, the city of Laguna Beach reversed its anti-camping ordinance following a similar suit from ACLU. And, in 2003, the ACLU sued Los Angeles over arrests on Skid Row – an area home to one of the largest stable populations of homeless residents in the country – and eventually struck a compromise that allowed most forms of “sidewalk sleeping.”

The Santa Barbara suit was filed on behalf of four transients who will be forced out onto the streets – where sleeping is illegal – if Casa Esperanza closes as scheduled.

In forcing shelter residents back onto the street, the city is “manufacturing homelessness and perhaps death warrants,” Mark Rosenbaum, an attorney for the ACLU of Southern California, said at a news conference.

In establishing their case, the ACLU has claimed that since many homeless people are disabled, Santa Barbara’s policies against the homeless violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The city has had an anti-camping ordinance in place since the 1970s, when a series of beachfront murders prompted local lawmakers to write the law.

While about half the beds in Casa Esperanza are available, under certain circumstances, year round, the second half are only made available during the cold winter months from December to April. The shelter has 30 “medical beds,” but the beds are reserved for only the acutely ill, leaving large numbers of reasonably ill transients without a place to sleep eight months out of the year.

The other 70 beds available year round are earmarked for transients capable of participating in the shelter’s job and rehabilitation programs – in which the ACLU says
many of the “chronically homeless” are unable to partake.