Homeless Man Being Shot by Police Is Emblematic of the Rising Incidences of Violence Against Homeless People
A homeless man in Boise, Idaho, sued the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management on August 21, alleging that undercover officers paralyzed him while trying to forcibly remove his family from federal land.
Brooks Roberts, 39, was living on federal land with his mother and brother when two plainclothes officers with the Forest Service tried to arrest him for “camping for a period longer than allowed” and “occupying a developed recreation site for other than recreation purposes,” according to a claim filed against the agencies on August 21.
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During the event, federal agents allegedly tricked Roberts into coming outside. They shot him “repeatedly,” leaving Roberts permanently paralyzed from the waist down.
Roberts and his attorneys at the Boise-based civil rights law firm Ferguson Durham, PLLC, and the nonprofit Wrest Collective seek $50 million in total damages. His lawyers also urge the local U.S. attorney’s office to drop the multiple misdemeanor charges against the family for illegal camping.
Invisible People reached out to both BLM and the Forest Service for comments about the lawsuit but did not immediately receive a reply.
“Not only were the ruse and shooting needless, but they consummated months of the federal government’s counterproductive harassment, criminalization, and prosecution of an Idaho family eking out survival while enduring homelessness brought on by their eviction at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic” the lawyers wrote in a letter notifying the agencies of the lawsuit.
Roberts and his family had been living on BLM land outside of Boise off-and-on since the winter of 2021, according to the lawsuit. They moved to the land after his mother, Judy, lost her job at a manufacturing plant in nearby Emmet, Idaho, and was injured in a car accident.
The family was unable to find another rental and was told that the local emergency shelter options were full, according to the lawsuit. They subsequently moved into their two camper trailers despite no running water. The Roberts family then “moved across Southwest Idaho,” where they were constantly ticketed by law enforcement officers and told to “move on,” the lawsuit adds.
After losing their home in Emmet, Roberts got a job at a Walmart in Boise and sometimes drove an hour from their campsite to work, according to the lawsuit. However, Roberts was injured at work and has since needed a wheelchair for mobility.
“How can we get on our feet when you keep ticketing us to take away our money that we could have used for housing?” Roberts said in a press release. “It just makes the problems amplified.”
The lawsuit alleges that BLM issued an ultimatum to the family in October 2022 and said the family had until the end of the month to leave. In February 2023, the government charged the family with federal misdemeanors for illegal camping and said they would seek jail time.
In May 2023, two plainclothes Forest Service officers approached the family’s campsite under the guise of having car troubles, the lawsuit claims. The officers never identified themselves as law enforcement either, according to the document.
Roberts’ brother, Timber, went to help the officers but was grabbed by the officers. Timber screamed, which the lawsuit says caused Roberts to grab his .22 revolver and jump into his wheelchair to help his brother. Several backup officers arrived on the scene at that time and opened fire on Roberts “without warning,” the lawsuit says. Officers continued to shoot at Roberts even as he lay in the mud, it adds.
Advocates like Eric Tars, legal director for the National Homelessness Law Center, say the lawsuit is emblematic of the rising incidences of violence against homeless people like Jordan Neely and Kurt Andras Reinhold. Neely was killed by a vigilante in the New York subway, while Reinhold was shot and killed by an Orange County police deputy for allegedly jaywalking.
“This shows that violence against homeless people isn’t just vigilante violence or individual violence, but is, in fact, systemic,” Tars told Invisible People in an interview. “And that’s why we need systemic change, from the top down.”
Tars also points out the excessive force officers use when confronting Brooks’ mother Judy (pictured below).
“In another of the body cam videos, you can see police holding a gun pointed at Judy in front of her trailer, after they have yelled at her–a double amputee with a walker–to put her hands up. Multiple officers are pointing weapons at her and are covering her like she’s some sort of huge threat, when they are arresting her, I remind you, for a misdemeanor camping ticket. The unbelievable unnecessary trauma to this family is just mind blowing, but it’s all too predictable when homelessness is treated as a crime.”
Other advocates with the National Coalition for Housing Justice are calling for the Biden-Harris administration to stop using federal police to respond to homelessness, citing the violent removal of an encampment just a couple blocks from the White House at McPherson Square.
“Criminalizing people who are unhoused and using police in response to homelessness opens the door to more brutality and discrimination, particularly in Black and Brown communities,” NCHJ said in a press release. “The only way to end homelessness is to stop the police contact in the first place.”
How You Can Help
Many communities have laws that criminalize activities homeless people need to do in public to survive, including:
- Sitting or lying down
- Loitering or loafing
- Eating or sharing food
- Asking for money or panhandling
- Sleeping in cars and outside or camping
Not only is the cost of criminalizing homelessness high, but it does nothing to solve homelessness and violates human rights. Anti-homeless legislation leads to homeless people being arrested or fined, which makes it harder to find housing and jobs and access social services.
Contact your legislators and demand they stop supporting legislation that criminalizes homelessness. Instead, they should support policies that invest in Housing First, a proven successful approach to solving homelessness.
The Roberts family continues to face homelessness and increased medical costs; donations for the family can be made at their GoFundMe page.