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West Coast Cities Can’t Jail or Fine Homeless People For Sleeping Outside Anymore

The Supreme Court just refused to take up a challenge to the landmark decision Martin v. Boise.

by Emma Ockerman
Dec 16 2019, 5:25pm

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Cities from Las Vegas to Redding, California, will have to build more homeless shelters before they think about ticketing and jailing poor people just for sleeping on the streets.

On Monday, the Supreme Court declined to take up an appeal of the controversial decision in the Martin v. Boise case, which determined that it was cruel and unusual for cities to punish homeless people for simply living outdoors if they had nowhere else to go. Cities like Las Vegas and Lacey, Washington, continued to pass laws banning camping or sleeping outdoors in the wake of the ruling — with the caveat that police must offer shelter before making an arrest or issuing a ticket.

Now, the landmark September 2018 ruling from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will stand, which means cities will have to think of homelessness solutions outside the criminal justice system. That’s good news for advocates who say the issue should be addressed with housing, not policing.

“We’re thrilled that the court has let the 9th Circuit decision stand so that homeless people are not punished for sleeping on the streets when they have no other option,” Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, said in a statement.

Before the 9th Circuit’s ruling, so-called “anti-camping” laws were widespread in cities dealing with a staggering affordable housing crisis. (Boise’s ordinance banning outdoor camping had existed since 1922, according to the Idaho Statesman.) Advocates considered the local rules largely pointless, if not inhumane.

If the Supreme Court took up the case, the justices could’ve revived those bans on the West Coast and strengthened the laws nationwide. Cities along the West Coast argued the decision tied their hands in addressing a growing homeless population, and that they’d benefit from the Supreme Court clarifying their abilities to police homelessness.

The 9th Circuit decision still allows cities to ticket homeless people if they have a shelter bed available to them but are refusing to go. Since the decision, cities like Kitsap, Washington, have considered moving homeless people to certain locations or only enforcing anti-camping bans in heavily trafficked areas to comply with the court ruling.

Meanwhile, cities like Oakland have used the ruling as an opportunity to address homelessness through other means, like providing services to encampments so they’re cleaner and don’t upset neighborhoods as much.

That’s not to say cities no longer criminalize any behavior resulting from homelessness, though. A report released by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty last week showed plenty of cities continue to make it a crime to beg for food or money, or live out of a vehicle.

Cover image: In this Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019 photo, Patrons of The Salvation Army homeless shelter grab supplies near downtown Las Vegas. Officials say they’re trying to stem complaints and compel homeless people to seek help as part of a broader strategy to protect the homeless and the public, safeguard business interests and address a public health crisis. (Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP)

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