WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court will not review an appellate decision that makes it harder for cities to keep homeless people from sleeping on the streets.
The justices on Monday did not comment as they left in place a ruling that struck down a Boise, Idaho, ordinance. The ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals applies across several Western states where cities are struggling with homelessness brought on by rising housing costs and income inequality. Many have similar restrictions that aim to keep homeless people from sleeping on their streets.
The appeals court held that Boise could not make it a crime for homeless people to sleep on the streets when no alternative shelter is available. The decision the justices refused to review found that the Boise ordinance violated the constitutional ban on “cruel and unusual punishment.”
About 20 “friend of the court” briefs were filed in the Boise case asking the Supreme Court to overturn the 9th Circuit's ruling. The reasoning in the briefs varied, but many municipalities indicated they feared the ruling would lead to public health issues if homeless camps were allowed to proliferate.
The 9th Circuit and other regional courts have made similar rulings: In 2007, the circuit ruled in favor of homeless residents of Los Angeles, finding that as long as there are more homeless residents than there are shelter beds, a law outlawing sleeping outside was unconstitutional. The entire lawsuit was later thrown out after both sides reached an agreement.
In 2009, a federal judge said a Portland, Oregon, rule designed to prevent people from sitting or lying on public sidewalks was unconstitutional. A Washington state judge rejected a similar anti-camping law in Everett, Washington.
Boise Mayor Dave Bieter, who has pushed for the city's policy of ticketing homeless “campers,” was defeated in the November election. His spokesman Mike Journee said it's now up to Mayor-elect Lauren McLean's administration to decide what to do next.
In a statement, McLean didn't say how her administration would address the 9th Circuity ruling. Instead, she said the city would continue working with “key community partners in housing and homelessness, and believe we have effective, humane and constitutionally sound solutions in our grasp.”
Howard Belodoff, the Idaho Legal Aid attorney who represented the Boise homeless residents in the case, said he and his clients were grateful for the high court's decision.
“Which I'm sure they didn't expect when they got a citation, were arrested and taken to jail and were sentenced to pay court costs they couldn't possibly afford, all because shelter wasn't available to them,” Belodoff said.
He said he was gratified his clients stuck with the case for many years, and said the decision means a lot for homeless individuals throughout the West.
“The net result, in my opinion, is that local officials and municipalities will have to address the issues surrounding homelessness, and not just make it a crime to sleep,” he said.
Los Angeles County was among the municipalities to support Boise in the lawsuit. County supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said the county's effort was not to criminalize the homeless but rather, “a pursuit of a legal framework that is clear — in comparison to a status quo that is ambiguous and confusing.”
He said the current law makes it hard for cities and counties to act nimbly to aid people who may be dying on the street.
Belodoff said cities like Boise and Los Angeles have plenty of tools available to address homelessness without resorting to handcuffs.
“They should take the hundreds of thousands of dollars they were going to spend on attorneys and put it into planning to address the issues so people don't have to sleep on the streets,” Belodoff said.