The U.S. Supreme Court won’t hear a landmark case on homelessness and camping bans, the court announced Monday, leaving in place a lower court’s decision that cities can’t enforce laws against homeless people sleeping in public places if they have nowhere else to go.
The decision is a blow to some Washington law enforcement and elected officials who hoped the Supreme Court would reverse the previous ruling, but homeless advocates lauded the outcome.
“It’s a good day,” said Eric Tars, legal director for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, which joined other legal advocates on the case. “We can feel good that the court has let this ruling stand, in saying that we as Americans believe that homeless people who have no place to go can’t be criminally punished.”
The case, Martin v. Boise, has caused an upheaval in the way West Coast cities deal with homelessness. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2018 that if a city doesn’t have enough shelter beds available, enforcing a camping ban like Boise’s — which makes camping or sleeping anywhere in Boise city limits illegal — violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Cities from Alaska to Arizona had to stop enforcing their anti-camping laws while they evaluated what they could legally enforce.
Now the case will go back to district court in Boise, where it was originally dismissed on standing.
A number of local governments in the 9th Circuit were advocating to get the Boise case heard by the Supreme Court, arguing the appeals court decision hampers their ability to police dangerous homeless camps and provides a “constitutional right to camp,” according to Theane Evangelis, lead counsel for the city of Boise.
“The 9th Circuit’s decision ultimately harms the very people it purports to protect,” Evangelis said in a statement Monday. “As the case now returns to the district court for further proceedings, the city of Boise will be evaluating next steps.”
Washington cities react
In a brief filed in late September urging the Supreme Court to review the 9th Circuit’s decision, lawyers representing cities across the country, government lawyers and Washington law enforcement argued that the cities of Spokane, Spokane Valley and Olympia were prevented from protecting the public under the Boise ruling.
Spokane enforces a “sit-lie” ordinance that cites people who sit, sleep or lie on Spokane streets, but only when appropriate shelter space is available. That can change on any given night as the city deals with a shelter bed shortage, said Spokane City Councilmember Breean Beggs.
The ruling prevented Spokane from citing people who could be connected to services through the criminal-justice system, the brief argued.
Spokane’s Mayor-elect Nadine Woodward told The Seattle Times shortly after her electoral victory in November that she wanted to see how the Boise case was resolved before spending money on more permanent shelter space.
But Beggs, who will become the council’s president in the new year, disagreed with the brief’s argument — the city’s pre-existing laws had already adopted the Boise ruling’s stance by including a caveat about shelter space, he said. The Supreme Court’s position won’t affect Spokane, he said, but could have major ramifications for its neighbors.
“The actual decision wouldn’t have changed that one way or another in Spokane, but what the Martin decision does really has a big impact on our surrounding areas,” he said.
Spokane Valley, a city that borders Spokane to the east and doesn’t have a homeless shelter within its borders, passed new regulations in November that restrict public camping unless there’s shelter available in the region as a whole. Unlike Spokane, however, the city took the additional step of permanently barring camping at City Hall and two local parks, regardless of whether there was shelter space.
Spokane Valley deputy city attorney Erik Lamb explained in a November council meeting that campers could still go to other public parks where the city could not enforce the ordinance if shelter space wasn’t available.
In Olympia, city leaders halted a large-scale downtown sweep the day the ruling came down last year. The city resumed the camp removals after opening a large, sanctioned camp downtown, offering people shelters or spots in the sanctioned site.
In Aberdeen, the city cleared out an infamous river camp this year and has moved many of its campers to a sanctioned area behind City Hall. But Aberdeen Mayor Erik Larson said that because Martin v. Boise isn’t a very specific ruling, it can be hard for his small town, with only two lawyers on staff, to make sure they’re running the camp in a way that won’t invite a lawsuit.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I can definitely say the Supreme Court not taking this up is really going to extend the amount of time we’re dealing with this untenable situation,” Larson said.
Is Seattle affected?
Sara Rankin, director of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project at Seattle University’s School of Law, said her takeaway from the Supreme Court’s decision was that the justices “did not buy the hype” described by these cities in their briefs.
“The hype was that they were completely hamstrung, that there was basically nothing else for them to do than issue them citations, or to respond to unsheltered homelessness by leading with law enforcement,” Rankin said.
But there are still “loopholes” in the decision that cities are exploiting, Rankin said. Berkeley, California, for instance, changed a ban on sitting or lying on sidewalks to a ban on “objects” on sidewalks after the Martin v. Boise ruling.
Seattle has asserted that it’s on the right side of the 9th Circuit decision because it doesn’t have a blanket policy criminalizing sleeping outside — its ordinances are only enforced under certain time and place conditions. Dan Nolte, spokesperson for the City Attorney’s Office, said Monday the city’s position hadn’t changed since the 9th Circuit ruling was first issued.
Rankin disagrees that this argument has been tested. Seattle, as it’s increasing the involvement of its police force in keeping the streets clear of visibly homeless people, shouldn’t rest easy, she said.
As for Boise, the city has undergone a political change since it asked the Supreme Court to hear the case: The city’s four-term incumbent Mayor David Bieter, who supported Boise’s practice of ticketing homeless people for camping, lost his reelection bid this month to the city council president, who opposed it.
Tars, one of the lawyers arguing against Boise’s defense, said he’s hopeful there will be an opportunity to settle with the city of Boise.
“The bottom line is cities should be looking at this not as a limitation on what they can do, but an opportunity to finally do the right thing,” Tars said. “Get people into housing. They shouldn’t be looking for constitutional loopholes to do the bare minimum here and continue criminalizing homelessness by some other name.”