Supreme Court declines to appeal ruling on homeless camping in public spaces

By Jake Lee Green
Kern Valley Sun

A ruling from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has been upheld by the United States Supreme Court after it declined an appeal in the decade-old case originating from Boise, Idaho, that would have made camping and sleeping in public spaces a criminal act. This brings many difficulties to the nine states within the 9th Circuit and their local governments who are dealing with widespread issues of homelessness. Opponents of the ruling feel local governments are in dire need of more power when it comes to polices and prosecution against public camping. For the advocates of homeless rights, it has become an issue of morality and an accusation that city management is disregarding the root issues of homelessness.

On Monday, December 13, 2019, the Supreme Court effectively stated its position in the matter by agreeing that camping in public spaces such as parks and sidewalks should not be a criminal offense by declining to hear the appeal made by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The issue in question comes from the 2009 case of the City of Boise vs. Martin which involved 10 homeless people who sued the city of Boise after having been ticketed for resting near a homeless shelter, sitting on riverbanks with backpacks, and laying down bedding in wooded areas. The case was ruled unconstitutional by the 9th Circuit even after the city of Boise had amended the law to prohibit officers and city officials from issuing citations while shelters were full.

Opponents are saying that this law ultimately harms people by restraining city officials from enforcing locally determined laws that govern the use of public spaces. Whereas, advocates for the homeless are saying the eighth amendment protects these citizens from excessive fines and cruel and unusual punishment. The 9th Circuit agreed with this position and therefore had made the decision to rule the law unconstitutional.

For California cities, this will come as quite the undertaking in managing a solution to the issues purveying the homeless. California contains nearly one-quarter of the country’s entire homeless population. San Francisco has seen its homeless population soar by 30 percent since 2017. According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, the city of Los Angeles had as many as 60,000 homeless residents on any given night in 2019. Sacramento has even stated that their homeless populations have become the highest on record.

More American cities are passing anti-camping ordinances and the results are not necessarily curbing the issues of homelessness. Advocates for homeless rights argue that the laws that criminalize public camping are not doing the justice they should be serving and that cities across the United States should take a closer look at analyzing root issues of homelessness if they are to institute a decrease. In addition, advocates are working with city officials in California cities to find funding for more shelters and services for homeless populations.

The Housing First policy, which has been championed by the city of Houston, Texas, has seen a significant reduction in homeless populations in their metro boundaries. Since 2011, the city of Houston has seen a 54 percent drop in homeless rates according to local point-in-time counts conducted. Approximately 18,000 in the city of Houston now have housing with leases in the tenant’s name thanks to these Housing First policies. Even though populations of homeless people had been on the rise after Hurricane Harvey, the effort has gone a long way in combating poverty in their city. Much more so than other Texas cities such as Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio, for example.

Opponents of this methodology have been gearing up within the White House since September when President Donald Trump ordered officials within his cabinet to tackle the issue of homelessness in Los Angeles and other California cities. On Monday, December 13, 2019, Housing Secretary Ben Carson met with city officials from Houston to encourage a push for federal action on homeless encampments. In addition, part of his trip to Houston encouraged stripping funding from cities that tolerate encampments within their city limits.

Part of Carson’s trip involved a tour of a homeless shelter and a former Harris County jail facility. This appears to be in line with a plan to have the government buy up real estate within cities swamped with homeless encampments. Carson’s tour of the former jail facility is also part of a controversial push by the federal government to outfit decommissioned correctional facilities into homeless shelters. This hands-on approach from the White House’s Domestic Policy Council is in part encouraged by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) who are working together to solidify policies that tenor law enforcement over the provision of resources.

In November of 2019, an official from HUD sent a letter to Portland, Oregon’s Mayor Ted Wheeler, and other Oregon officials. The letter proposed to create a pilot program to curb homelessness by repurposing an unused jail in Portland. This came on the heels of a trip Carson and HUD officials made to Los Angeles in September when they toured a former federal building just outside of the city.

In addition, HUD has narrowed down a list of 24 cities that have been selected as an intention to deprive funding and resources for the homeless. Houston, Texas is on that list and five major California cities as well.

In any case, both sides of the fence are in anticipation of an executive order by President Donald Trump that could possibly strip local governments of their ability to take a ‘Housing First’ approach. The consistent nature of federal officials looking into creating new methods of control over local city governments, in regards to homelessness, indicates that this is a real possibility.