Supreme Court declines to hear case on ban against people sleeping and camping in public spaces

“The problem of homelessness is getting to crisis stage in this country. Traveling around the country visiting most of our major and minor cities you will find homeless camps on the outskirts of each of these cities. The problem must be addressed and immediately because its causing social welfare destruction of our young and old citizenry to suffer the most. How would you like to see homeless children going to school?? Well it’s a reality we must face, along with other issues that follow homelessness.”

On Monday, the Supreme Court decided not to hear an appeal that would have allowed officers to ticket people who sleep and camp in public spaces; this is considered a major victory for people who are experiencing homelessness. Instead of hearing the case, the Supreme Court is letting a ruling from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals stand. That ruling says that homeless people have a constitutional right to sleep outside (assuming it’s public property) if no shelter space is available. The case will now return to the 9th Circuit, which is based in San Francisco.

The history of this case is a long one. Boise, Idaho, brought the case, though the question of how to safely, practically support homeless people is one that the entire nation should be trying to answer. In 2009, six people sued Boise after being ticketed for sleeping outside. They received tickets ranging from $25 to $75 because they were caught sleeping outside, on benches or in parks, which was a violation of a local ordinance. In response, Boise officials amended the ordinance to stop tickets when shelters were full. This is where the 9th Circuit came in and declared the local law was unconstitutional, saying it was a “cruel and unusual punishment.” The logic here is that it’s, essentially, criminalizing homeless people when they have nowhere else to go. Writing someone a ticket for sleeping outside when they do not have another place to sleep doesn’t exactly offer them support or resources. For many, sleeping outside is not a matter of choice or will, but of necessity.

The 9th Circuit decision noted that “just as the state may not criminalize the state of being homeless in public places, the state may not criminalize conduct that is an unavoidable consequence of being homeless—namely sitting, lying, or sleeping on the streets.” Some cities aren’t thrilled. Local governments worry that camps do more harm than good; for example, they may create festering illness, violence, and overall isolation from the community. “Cities’ hands are tied now by the 9th Circuit Decision because it effectively creates a constitutional right to camp,” Theane Evangelis, an attorney representing Boise in the case, explained to NPR in an emailed statement. The ruling applies to nine states, including Alaska, California, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Nevada, Arizona, and Hawaii. California is certainly of note, as both San Francisco and Los Angeles are known for high living costs and massive income inequality, a perfect storm for thrusting people into homelessness and making it exceptionally difficult to come out of it.

Similarly, a Las Vegas ban on people experiencing homeless sleeping on certain downtown streets recently went viral. This ordinance actually makes it a misdemeanor, which is, again, basically criminalizing being homeless. There are countless reasons a person may experience homelessness. LGBTQ youth are kicked out of their homes and experience homelessness at disproportionate rates. People who leave abusive relationships may experience homelessness. It can also happen just from losing your job, unexpected medical expenses, or chronic, unstable housing to begin with. No matter what circumstances brings a person into homelessness, it’s almost certain that criminalizing the experience isn’t going to make it easier to transition out of it.

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