Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court decided, without dissent or comment, to not hear an appeal against a lower court ruling that barred law enforcement from prosecuting homeless people for sleeping on public city and county property.
The case, Martin vs. City of Boise, was filed in 2009, by a collection of homeless individuals in an effort to curb a city ordinance that would ticket individuals for sleeping or camping on public property.
In 2018, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Marsha S. Berzon ruled that criminalizing people for street camping, without the city providing enough indoor options like temporary shelters, constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the Eighth Amendment. In September both the the county and city filed separate briefs calling on the Supreme Court to hear an appeal, citing that the ruling did not provide enough insight or clarity on how municipalities can address street camping.
By not hearing the case, the Supreme Court left the 9th Circuit’s ruling in place. In essence, the ruling is telling city and county officials that if you don’t like seeing homeless people clogging public arteries, build the appropriate housing. It’s the right decision to make, and one that must be made in today’s climate.
The homelessness crisis is getting worse and there is no way to arrest or ticket our way out of this problem. In the city, homelessness increased by 16% compared to 2018, per the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. This year LAHSA also found that there was a 17% spike over 2018 in the number of people experiencing homelessness for the first time.
This page has called for speeding up shelter construction while encouraging government officials to look into alternative options to combat this crisis, but at the same time, agrees with the ruling that punitive measures like costly tickets do little to solve the issue, and can possibly exacerbate what is becoming a gargantuan task. This paper reiterates that push. Almost everyone knows the importance and value of housing-first approaches, but what is the value of these kinds of laws?
Some would argue that the ruling is essentially allowing lawnessless. This page disagrees, finding that the ruling is instead protecting the constitutional rights of some of our most vulnerable neighbors.
People living on the streets are already struggling, often financially. Fines can only set people back and in many ways alienate them further from the city’s efforts to try to help them.
Yes, clear rules do help. No one, not homeless individuals or commuters into the Financial District, wants dirty and cluttered sidewalks and streets that make Downtown inhospitable and unwelcoming.
However, we must always remember that homelessness is not a crime and Los Angeles needs a holistic approach to alleviating poverty and addressing homelessness. Efforts that only set people back are not the answer and we can only hope that the Boise ruling spurs a more urgent response from Los Angeles officials.