Brooks Roberts' life has been difficult the past few years.
The pandemic left the 38-year-old and his family homeless. Disability, job losses and an eviction all struck at the same time, sending them on a downward spiral into poverty. His mother lost her feet to frostbite and now uses prosthetics to walk. And a 2022 work injury left Roberts unsteady on his legs and in a wheelchair.
After being kicked out of their apartment, the family lived in an RV camper, moving from trailhead to trailhead on public lands for the past three years. They were living in a national forest in May when the U.S. Forest Service and a barrage of law enforcement tried to arrest the family for camping on public land longer than allowed. Roberts was shot and the injury left him paralyzed from the waist down.
As cities and states across the country pass ordinances cracking down on camping and homelessness, the Robertses' eviction from the forest has become a high-profile example of an unhoused American facing harm at the hands of law enforcement while being poor and having no place else to go.
In response to the shooting, lawyers filed a personal injury tort claim on behalf of Roberts against the federal government for $50 million, representing a lifetime's worth of lost earnings due to his condition.
"Forest Service officers needlessly and recklessly shot Mr. Roberts repeatedly, causing him extreme suffering and permanent disability," said Ritchie Eppink, one of Roberts' lawyers.
The shooting occurred after Roberts, who had a .22 revolver with him, pointed his weapon at the two plainclothes officers after they confronted his brother. He did not fire, police body camera footage shows. After seeing Brooks Roberts' gun, officers unleashed a storm of gunfire on him, the footage shows. Since Idaho is an open carry state, Roberts was within his rights to be holding the weapon.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which includes the U.S. Forest Service, declined to respond to a request for comment from USA TODAY, citing the ongoing litigation.
Officials shoot homeless man multiple times, including in the back
U.S. Forest Service officers allegedly fired at Roberts more than 10 times, shooting him in the back while he lay immobile on the ground on May 19, according to body camera footage viewed by USA TODAY and the tort claim.
The Roberts family is part of Idaho's unhoused population. Around 2,000 people experienced homelessness there in 2022, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Overall, homelessness in the state increased by 14.2% in the past 15 years, according to the department. The state has one of the higher unsheltered homelessness rates in the nation, HUD data shows, with nearly half (44%) of unhoused Idahoans living outdoors or in vehicles in 2022.
In Idaho's Payette National Forest, and across the country, the U.S. Forest Service has historically managed public lands, conserved natural resources and provided "quality water and timber for the nation’s benefit," the agency's website says. The agency's law enforcement division is "charged with protecting the public, employees, and natural resources," according to its website.
"After I got shot, my main feeling was, 'am I going to survive this?'" Roberts said. "Because I knew that if it killed me, my mom and my brother would basically commit suicide because of the grief of losing me."
Roberts spent months recovering in the hospital and has lived in a small budget hotel room with his mother for the past five weeks. It's very hard to still not have a "stable roof over" their heads, he said, and he's worried they'll be back "out on the sidewalk" when what little money they have runs out.
The extreme use of force used against Roberts by federal officers sends a clear message from the federal government that unhoused people are less deserving of their right to life, said Eric Tars, legal director of the National Homelessness Law Center.
"This is the message from the top," Tars said.
Arrested for being homeless on public land
The shooting happened as part of a sting operation in which plainclothes officers tried to serve an arrest warrant for the family's unsanctioned camping in Payette National Forest, north of Boise. Officers tried to serve arrest warrants for Roberts and his mother and brother, accusing all three of the low-level misdemeanor of camping on public lands longer than allowed, said Craig Durham one of Roberts' lawyers. His brother, 35-year-old Timber Roberts, also had an arrest warrant for disorderly conduct, according to Durham. He was jailed for the misdemeanors and has been behind bars since then.
The attempt to arrest the Roberts family in May escalated because authorities snuck up on the family and pretended to be members of the public, the tort claim says.
Plainclothes officers from the U.S. Forest Service arrived at the family's camper in an unmarked pickup and knocked on the RV's front door, saying they needed help jumpstarting their vehicle, body camera footage shows.
The tort claim states the violence that ensued stemmed from a "wildly dangerous ruse operation that needlessly jeopardized the lives and safety of the public."
After Timber Roberts came outside to help the two men jumpstart their truck, the officers took him to the ground and said they were arresting him.
Timber Roberts yelled toward the camper saying he needed help, and Brooks Roberts wheeled out of the RV, thinking, "I got to get out there and help him," he said.
"I thought he was being carjacked and that they either could have stabbed or shot him. I thought they were carjackers," he said.
'I didn't know you guys were cops'
In addition to the U.S. Forest Service, more than a dozen law enforcement officials from the Bureau of Land Management, McCall Police Department, and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game were involved in the operation, Durham said. They had the RV surrounded but didn't make their presence known to either Brooks or Timber Roberts until it was too late, lawyers said.
All the agencies declined to comment to USA TODAY on the case.
During the shooting, Robert's gun was flung from his hand and he fell to the ground. Officers identified themselves to Roberts after firing at him more than 10 times, telling him to put his hands where they could see them.
"I'm sorry, I thought my brother was being attacked," Brooks Roberts said after he realized the people were police. "I didn't know you guys were cops."
Looking back on the shooting months later, Brooks Roberts said he's "royally pissed" that federal officers didn't properly announce themselves before opening fire. With the planned lawsuit, he said the money he's seeking will make up for the lost income he'll suffer as a result of his disability.
"It needs to be a federal law that any cop caught harassing a homeless person gets arrested and put in jail for at least a month," Brooks Roberts said.
'We had done nothing wrong except being homeless'
When Brooks Roberts was shot multiple times by federal law enforcement, the family was just trying to survive and save enough money to get into an apartment, he said. The government made that task more difficult by garnishing his mom's social security disability checks for nonpayment of camping tickets, which they incurred because of living in an RV, she said in a news release.
"We had done nothing wrong except being homeless and being stuck where we were," Brooks Roberts said. "It wasn't like we chose to be there. We got snowed in and got stuck and had nowhere to go."
"All I could think of was how much it hurt," he said of the day of the shooting. The shooting left him with "searing pain," 11 bullet holes in his body and lead lodged in his spine.
He said he feels angry that he's "a burden" to his family members because he needs help doing basic tasks.
What the federal government labeled "camping" was "very much not an existence that they wanted," Durham said, who added that the family could not find space to live in homeless shelters.
"It was harsh, difficult, destabilizing and lacking in necessities," he said.
Many homeless people live in fear of police across US
Across the country this year, city police departments have been enforcing a growing number of camping bans, leading to arrests and fines for unhoused people living on the streets. Sweeps of tent encampments in cities like Los Angeles have felt like a whack-a-mole game in recent months, homeless advocates say, forcing people to constantly live in fear of crackdowns.
In Idaho, the Roberts family was forced to move their camper roughly every two weeks to comply with ordinances on camping, their lawyers said. Still, Forest Service authorities and officers from the Bureau of Land Management spent a considerable amount of resources trying to arrest them, Brooks Roberts' lawyers argue.
Usually, authorities issue tickets and fines, and would only coordinate with other agencies for larger encampment evictions, Tar said.
"I’ve been doing this work for almost two decades, and I’ve never heard of federal law enforcement using all these resources from multiple agencies just to target a single family for arrest for unsanctioned camping,” Tars said.
The extreme force used against the Roberts family sets a bad example for other police departments across the country struggling to deal with the homelessness crises in their own backyards, Tars said.
"This is the message that is being received by police departments across the country, that this is an appropriate way to address homelessness," he said.
Aside from trained law enforcement, Tars said he's worried about members of the general public who might try to apprehend unhoused people as vigilantes.
"When people see federal police, and state and local police treat people experiencing homelessness as though they're less deserving of their right to life, then this is the kind of thing that we can expect to see more of," Tars said.
Camping bans led to misdemeanor charges
At the time of the shooting, the Roberts family had already secured lawyers to argue on their behalf so they could stay in their camper, according to the tort claim. The family also had a social worker who was helping with their search for more stable housing.
Lawyers claim federal agents "collaborated to trick the family," instead of informing the Robertses' court-appointed attorneys of their most recent warrants, the tort claim reads.
Brooks Roberts and his mom still have camping misdemeanor charges pending against them and are raising money on GoFundMe to afford a rental home. They are scheduled for a court hearing in October.
In December, the White House Interagency Council on Homelessness criticized the rise in camping bans in some U.S. cities, arguing they criminalize homelessness without getting people into shelters or housing. The council also said it would "combat" local "laws which criminalize homelessness" as part of its long-term plan to solve the homelessness crisis.
The group's stated goals for reducing homelessness stand in stark contrast to instances where federal officers have used force against unhoused people or sent them to jail, Tars said.
In February, federal law enforcement also cleared longtime unhoused residents from Washington, D.C.'s McPherson Square, which falls within federal jurisdiction. The sweep resulted in two people being sent to jail, and most of the residents remained unhoused as of June, The Washington Post reported.
In a statement, the White House Interagency Council on Homelessness said they defer questions about Roberts' tort claim to the agencies directly involved.
"On paper, the federal government has put out great guidance saying we should do exactly the opposite, that criminalization of homelessness is bad policy," Tars said.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Homeless man shot by police while living on national forest land