The Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal in a case originating from Boise, Idaho, that would have made it a crime to camp and sleep in public spaces.
The decision to let a ruling from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals stand is a setback for states and local governments in much of the West that are grappling with widespread homelessness by designing laws to regulate makeshift encampments on sidewalks and parks.
The case stems from a lawsuit filed nearly a decade ago. A handful of people sued the city of Boise for repeatedly ticketing them for violating an ordinance against sleeping outside. While Boise officials later amended it to prohibit citations when shelters are full, the 9th Circuit eventually determined the local law was unconstitutional.
In a decision last year, the court said it was “cruel and unusual punishment” to enforce rules that stop homeless people from camping in public places when they have no place else to go. That means states across the 9th Circuit can no longer enforce similar statutes if they don’t have enough shelter beds for homeless people sleeping outside.
Los Angeles attorney Theane Evangelis, who is representing Boise in the case, argued the decision ultimately harms the people it purports to protect because cities need the ability to control encampments that threaten public health and safety.
“Cities’ hands are tied now by the 9th Circuit Decision because it effectively creates a Constitutional right to camp,” Evangelis told NPR in an emailed statement.
In court documents, lawyers for Boise said, “Public encampments, now protected by the Constitution under the Ninth Circuit’s decision, have spawned crime and violence, incubated disease, and created environmental hazards that threaten the lives and well-being both of those living on the streets and the public at large.”
Major West Coast cities and counties with soaring homeless populations had backed Boise in its petition, including Los Angeles County, where the number of people without a permanent place to live has jumped by 16% in the past year.
As NPR reported, California is where nearly a quarter of the country’s homeless population lives.
The homeless and their advocates say ticketing homeless people does nothing to solve the bigger housing crisis.
“Paying lawyers six figures to write briefs is not really going to build any more housing,” said Howard Belodoff, a Boise civil rights attorney.
Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, added: “Housing, not handcuffs, is what ends homelessness.”
The center, which was one of three groups to file the case in 2009, hailed the decision as being essential to encouraging cities to propose constructive alternatives to homelessness.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development found that more than 550,000 people experienced homelessness on a single night in January 2018. Of those, nearly 200,000 were unsheltered.
The case now returns to the 9th Circuit. The city of Boise says it is evaluating its next steps.
NPR News 12/16/19