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Court Ruling Limits What Cities In Western U.S. Can Do To Address Homelessness

Dec 16, 2019
Originally published on December 17, 2019 12:26 am
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The U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up an appeal today. At issue in the case, whether or not cities can ticket or jail homeless people for sleeping in public places when there aren't enough shelter beds available. NPR's Kirk Siegler has more from Boise, Idaho, where the case originated.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Today, the Supreme Court denied, without explanation, the city of Boise's petition to appeal what's seen as a sweeping ruling in the federal 9th Circuit from last year. That lower court ruled that Idaho's capital city was in violation of the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment when police here ticketed the homeless for sleeping in public.

Now, cities in the West, from Idaho to Washington to California, can't enforce such rules against the homeless until they've found shelter for everyone who needs it. And most cities in the region don't have enough shelter beds on any given night, which means if they ticket the homeless now, they're in violation of federal law.

Attorney Theane Evangelis represented Boise in its appeal.

THEANE EVANGELIS: And city's hands are tied now by the 9th Circuit's decision because it effectively creates a constitutional right to camp.

SIEGLER: Major West Coast cities like Los Angeles are grappling with growing tent cities and the public health and safety fallouts from them. Many filed briefs in support of Boise's appeal. Evangelis says everyone agrees the solution is more low-income housing and services, but she says this decision makes it virtually impossible for cities to do anything in the interim.

EVANGELIS: And we have an outbreak of diseases and a very dangerous situation for people who are living on the streets and for everyone. And the city needs to have the tools available to deal with growing encampments.

SIEGLER: In a statement, Boise's outgoing mayor, Dave Bieter, said he hopes the city's next administration continues to fight in federal court to get clarification about how to comply with the law. That's seen as unlikely, at least here. The mayor lost in a heated election this month to a more liberal Democrat who had criticized the city for criminalizing homelessness.

Maria Foscarinis heads the National Center on Homelessness & Poverty, which helped represent the Boise homeless who brought the case. She says the court has now affirmed that ticketing or jailing homeless people isn't working.

MARIA FOSCARINIS: The solution is addressing the root of the problem, which is that people can't afford a place to live. People don't have access to the services they need.

SIEGLER: Foscarinis hopes this news will force cities to stop turning to the courts and start finding long-term solutions.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Boise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.