Circuit Court ruling protects homeless sleeping in public

A federal court has ruled that local governments in nine western U.S. states cannot arrest people for sleeping on sidewalks or camping in public places.

Last month, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower federal court ruling that says penalizing someone for sleeping in public violates the 8th Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Criminalization has made it even harder for many homeless persons to get off of the streets, find stability and move forward with their lives.

The states that this ruling applies to are Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington. It also has jurisdiction over Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. The ruling means that cities within these states will have to rethink how they address homelessness in their communities.

The 9th Circuit ruling does not outlaw public sleeping bans. Instead, the court’s ruling says that cities cannot enforce public sleeping and camping bans unless there are enough shelter beds for all homeless persons in the area. The court recognized that all human beings need sleep. Unless there are reasonable alternatives available, it is cruel and unusual punishment to be arrested for sleeping in public. According to the court, “as long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false pretense they had a choice in the matter.

The court also said that shelter beds must be practically accessible. They must be within the local area, and there must be beds to serve everyone, even those with special needs. This would include beds for women with children or persons with disabilities. It also means that shelter space run by religious organizations does not necessarily count as available to all. Many religious shelters require people who stay there to participate in prayer or religious programs, or else get turned away. The judges found that locations that coerced religious participation are not accessible to all.

The states and territories under the jurisdiction of the 9th Circuit United States Court of Appeals. Image by MarginalCost on Wikipedia:

The case, Martin v. City of Boise, was originally decided last September. The City of Boise appealed, and this month, the 9th Circuit declined to hear the case again before the full appellate court. This means that the 9th Circuit upheld the earlier ruling. The City of Boise may still appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The ruling is considered “precedential.” This means that it sets a precedent that all governments within the 9th Circuit’s jurisdiction must follow. Old laws that conflict with it will need to be struck down, amended or unenforced. New laws must conform with the 9th Circuit’s guidelines.

Supporters of public sleeping bans believe the measures reduce litter, protect public health and promote safety. However, these laws have the effect of punishing people just for being poor. In fact, these laws make it much harder for people to break the cycle of homelessness.

An arrest record often disqualifies people from job openings, and you need to earn money to pay the rent. But even if you find work, it can be hard to get an apartment if you have an arrest record. Many landlords require criminal background checks. People who have been arrested for loitering, vagrancy or public disturbance (common charges for sleeping in public places) often face rejection when they apply for an apartment.

From the public policy perspective, criminalizing homelessness is also very costly for local governments. The cost for police action, court time and incarceration is very high. It is far more expensive to cycle people through the criminal justice system than it is to provide shelter, transitional housing and supportive services.

Decriminalizing public sleeping provides communities an opportunity to rethink how they can best address homelessness. The money saved by keeping people out of the criminal justice system can go towards more affordable housing and supportive services. It frees up officers and the courts to spend more time clamping down on violent crimes.

Some cities have reacted positively to the ruling. San Francisco, Sacramento and Portland, Oregon, have stopped enforcing their public sleeping bans. Some communities have opened specific parks to camping by persons who are homeless, such as Modesto, California. Olympia, Washington, has called off sweeps of homeless encampments. Many cities, like San Diego or Bremerton, Washington, have designated specific lots for people who sleep in their cars.

While it only applies to the nine western states under the 9th Circuit’s jurisdiction, this ruling will likely influence other states and cities around the country. It is a first step in pushing states and local communities to address the underlying causes of homelessness. Adopting measures that promote affordable housing, supportive services and job creation will almost certainly benefit communities more than punishing our neighbors for having no place to go.