Last week the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would not hear the case of Martin vs. the City of Boise, the refusal of which will let stand a September 2018 ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, cities cannot cite or arrest homeless individuals for sleeping in public spaces.
The case was originally brought in 2009, in challenge to an existing Boise, Idaho law that allowed the city to fine people for sleeping on the street in violation of an anti-camping ordinance. The 9th Circuit found that camping and disorderly conduct ordinances that criminalize sleeping on the streets, without enough available shelter beds for homeless individuals, violated the Eighth Amendment. The appeals court found that such laws constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The ruling applies to the 9th Circuit’s jurisdiction, which covers most of the western United States, including California.
Multiple western cities filed briefs with the Supreme Court asking it to hear the case, Los Angeles among them, via City Attorney Mike Feuer following a seperate 3-2 vote by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. At the time of the vote, Supervisors Hilda Solis, who represents much of Downtown Los Angeles, and Sheila Kuehl, voted against filing the amicus brief.
In response to the court’s decision this month, Feuer said in a statement that while cities work to build more shelters and housing for homeless populations, they need “rules that assure our sidewalks and other public spaces are safe and accessible for everyone.”
“We need clarity about what the Constitution allows as we develop and enforce those rules. That’s why we asked the Court to review Boise and provide that clarity for jurisdictions throughout the Country that are wrestling with this complex issue,” Feuer’s statement continued. “The Court chose not to provide that clarity. Without it, it is likely the City will face further legal challenges as we seek to implement rules that effectively balance the rights and needs of homeless residents with the rights and legitimate interests of other residents and businesses. That litigation will dissipate resources better spent on finding concrete, practical solutions to a crisis that affects all Angelenos.”
The Supreme Court did not provide a comment or dissent on why they opted not to hear the case.
Maria Foscarinis, executive director at the National Law Center, who filed the lawsuit in tandem with Idaho Legal Aid Service and Latham & Watkins LLP, called the ruling a step in the right direction in terms of encouraging alternatives to solving homelessness.
“We’re thrilled that the Court has let the 9th Circuit decision stand so that homeless people are not punished for sleeping on the streets when they have no other options,” Foscarinis said in a statement. “Ultimately, our goal is to end homelessness through housing — which is effective and saves taxpayer dollars — so that no one has to sleep on the streets in the first place.”
With the court’s choice not to take up the case, the 9th Circuit’s ruling remains in effect. As a result, the ruling essentially codifies the 2007 “Jones agreement,” which paused police enforcement of street camping laws until the city can build more housing.
In the meantime, housing construction has been sluggish, with new permanent supportive housing planned and in the works, but slow to finish.
In September, Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin released a report criticizing the rate and cost of permanent supportive housing construction and the use of Proposition HHH funds, which were approved by Los Angeles voters in 2016 to fund homeless housing.
Per the Los Angeles Homeless Service Authority’s 2019 count, homelessness in the city increased by 16% over 2018 and its estimated that nearly 60,000 people go without permanent shelter each night in Los Angeles County.
In September Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas called the status quo “untenable.”
“We need to call this what it is — a state of emergency,” Ridley-Thomas said.
According to officials, Los Angeles is short nearly 520,000 affordable housing units and nearly 44,000 of the regions homeless population go unsheltered on any given night.
Sean P. Thomas contributed to this report