Advocates for the homeless hail U.S. Supreme Court victory

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 12/27/2019, 6 a.m.
Homeless people can sleep on public property, including sidewalks and parks in communities that offer no other option. That’s the ...

Homeless people can sleep on public property, including sidewalks and parks in communities that offer no other option.

That’s the upshot of the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to hear an appeal from Boise, Idaho, whose ordinance to bar the homeless from camping out in public places was overturned as violating the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The high court’s decision essentially keeps in place the 2018 ruling from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that homeless advocates hailed as a victory in a long-running fight between the homeless and communities seeking to protect public property from use as sleeping quarters and bathrooms.

Agreeing with lawyers for the homeless, the appeals court found that prosecuting people for sleeping on the sidewalk violates the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment if a community fails “when no alternative shelter is available to them.”

While the appeals court’s decision only affects nine Western states, including California where an estimated half of all homeless Americans live, it sets a precedent that will reverberate in other cities, including Richmond, until there is a contradictory decision from another appellate court.

The City of Richmond offers a public shelter only during the winter, which is open only on nights when the temperature is forecast to remain at or below 40 degrees.

During the summer, Richmond offers cooling stations that generally are open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. when temperatures or the heat index is expected to reach or exceed 95 degrees. But unlike the winter shelter, there is no ordinance requiring the city to open the cooling stations.

Officials from Los Angeles and other cities joined with Boise in asking the nation’s highest court to hear the case. The ruling went further than the 9th Circuit’s decision in 2006 that rejected a Los Angeles ordinance barring people from sleeping in public places.

In their argument, municipal officials stated that the Boise law was “never an attempt to criminalize the homeless; rather, it was a pursuit of a legal framework that is clear — in comparison to a status quo that is ambiguous and confusing.

“Letting the current law stand handicaps cities and counties from acting nimbly to aid those perishing on the streets, exacerbating unsafe and unhealthy conditions that negatively affect our most vulnerable residents,” officials for the cities claimed.

Lawyers for the homeless noted that Boise began enforcing its anti-camping ban on sidewalks in 2009, but stopped enforcing it five years ago in a bid to end the lawsuit.

Advocates sued Boise 10 years ago after a number of homeless people were given misdemeanor citations of $25 to $75 for camping out.

The “creation of a de facto constitutional right to live on sidewalks and in parks will cripple the ability of municipalities to maintain the health and safety of their communities,” lawyers for Boise wrote.

“Nothing in the Constitution,” the attorneys insisted, “requires cities to surrender their streets, sidewalks, parks, riverbeds and other public areas to vast encampments.”

But the U.S. Supreme Court’s action means that the encampments are now legal.