Supreme Court Declines to Hear Appeal on Public Sleeping Bans - Affordable Housing Online

Supreme Court Declines to Hear Appeal on Public Sleeping Bans

By on January 7th, 2020

Tagged As: Affordable Housing News

U.S. Supreme Court Building. Photo by rush.house.gov

The Supreme Court recently rejected a request by the City of Boise to appeal a lower court ruling that decriminalizes being homeless. This past April, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the city in Martin v. Boise. The Appeals Court said that the city cannot ticket and arrest people for sleeping on the streets when there is no accessible shelter.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has jurisdiction over nine western states. This means that its ruling in the Boise case applies to all local jurisdictions within its territory. Cities in Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington will have to comply. This will be challenging for many western cities that have been grappling with a surge in homelessness, even as their local economies have boomed. Many of these cities have public sleeping and camping bans. 

The 9th Circuit ruling said that sleeping is a basic part of the human condition. Arresting someone for sleeping in public when they have nowhere else to go is “cruel and unusual punishment,” barred by the Constitution’s 8th Amendment. The ruling further specified that anti-camping laws can be enforced, but only if there is enough accessible shelter available nearby.

The City of Boise asked the Supreme Court to review the 9th Circuit’s decision. A large number of western cities, including Los Angeles, had urged the Supreme Court to hear the appeal. Lawyers for Boise argued that, “the creation of a de facto constitutional right to live on sidewalks and in parks will cripple the ability of more than 1,600 municipalities in the 9th Circuit to maintain the health and safety of their communities.”

Some western cities began complying after the 9th Circuit’s decision last spring. The City of Olympia, Washington, halted a sweep of a homeless encampment the day of the 9th Circuit’s ruling. Olympia has resumed sweeps, but only after opening a large, sanctioned camping area near downtown. Aberdeen, Washington, also cleared out an “infamous river camp” this year. Aberdeen, though, moved most of those camping to a sanctioned area behind city hall.

Other cities have tried to work around the 9th Circuit’s ruling that people cannot be barred from sleeping on the streets if there is not enough shelter. Los Angeles once had a blanket ban on sleeping in public places. It stopped enforcing the ban due to an earlier lawsuit in 2006. Since the Boise decision, though, the City Council has moved to restrict where homeless people may sleep. The City Council adopted rules prohibiting public camping within 500 feet of schools, parks, and other designated public places. Advocates for homeless residents have protested these new restrictions will make it hard to find places to legally sleep when there are not enough shelter beds to serve all of the city’s homeless residents.

The Supreme Court did not give a reason for rejecting the appeal. It takes four justices to accept a case for consideration. These decisions are made behind closed doors, and the Supreme Court rarely gives a reason for not taking a case. When the Supreme Court does not hear an appeal, the lower court’s ruling stands. For now, homeless people in the western states covered by the 9th Circuit do not have to worry about being arrested just because they can’t find a place to sleep.

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Chris Holden

Chris Holden, Affordable Housing Online's Senior Housing Analyst, has been in the affordable housing field for 25 years. Originally from Keene, New Hampshire, he has worked as a researcher, policy analyst, lender, trainer and real estate developer. He also taught political science at Keene State College. He is focused on making housing policies more accessible for low-income renters.