By not considering a lower court decision, the Supreme Court has let stand a ruling stating that laws criminalizing sleeping in public places are unconstitutional.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals 2018 decision in Martin V. Boise said it was "cruel and unusual punishment" to stop people from camping in public places when they had no housing available to them. On Monday the Supreme Court announced it would not hear a challenge to the case.
Sacramento homeless rights attorney Mark Merin says cities and counties cannot rely on law enforcement to address homelessness.
"Now they're going to have to really deal with shelter issues, recognizing that otherwise homeless people are going to be all over and in greater numbers than we've ever seen before," Merin said.
But California cities and counties say the ruling will limit their options in responding to the state's growing homeless population.
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg — who co-chairs Gov. Gavin Newsom's homelessness task force — says housing is part of the solution. But he also wants to see the Legislature create a state mandate that allows the government to move homeless people into housing, similar to requirements for health insurance and reductions in carbon emissions.
"The world is changing when it comes to renewable energy because we require the result that we all know is necessary. When it comes to homelessness, everything we do is voluntary," Steinberg said. "People living with extreme mental illness or substance abuse issues cannot get better if they are living under a freeway overpass."
Sacramento City Councilmember Jeff Harris called the court’s lack of action “damaging.” He also said the ability of law enforcement to move camps is an important part of reducing the impact homelessness has on people on the streets.
“As they get more established and they get rooted, bad things happen," Harris said. "There is a lot more personal crime, crime against persons, meaning sexual assaults, physical assaults, robbery, larceny.”
Donald Miller volunteers at the Loaves and Fishes homeless services center in Sacramento and lives on the streets. He says local law enforcement hasn’t changed much, if at all, since last year’s decision.
“You tell us to get off of the street, we do that. You send us up there and then you send us right back down here,” Miller said, describing Sacramento Police officers telling him to leave his space on a sidewalk down the street and move near the American River Parkway, only to have Sacramento Sheriff’s deputies tell him to vacate that location.
“It’s just going back and forth, back and forth and all of a sudden you look up and people are going to jail,” he said.
Noel Kammerman, executive director of Loaves and Fishes, says he has seen city officers evicting homeless people from their campsites near the center. He supports the decision.
“I have a hard time understanding why we would want to criminalize folks, especially if we are not able to safely accommodate everybody,” Kammerman said.
Recent ordinances passed by Yuba County, Sutter County and the cities of Marysville, Yuba City and Live Oak make it illegal for anyone to live along levees. Proponents of the new laws say they are focused on public safety, not homelessness. Merin says they will likely be the target of future lawsuits.
“They’re trying to say, ‘Well, yeah, but they can’t be here.’ And that ‘here’ is everywhere where homeless people normally are, which is out of site perhaps in wooded areas or close to rivers,“ Merin said.
Councilman Harris said he supports those levee-related camping ordinances as a matter of public safety. Sacramento does not have one.
“When we found out that homeless people were digging into our levees, that puts all of us at grave risk,” he said. “With Martin V. Boise, we can’t legally go move those people off of the levees when they’re damaging them. That’s absolutely unacceptable.”
According to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, there were 129,972 homeless people in California. Steinberg says about 90,000 are unhoused.
Correction: A previous version of this story was unclear about the Supreme Court's role in this case. The court refused to hear the case, it made no decision or statement on the ruling.
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