Supreme Court leaves cities with only one option on homelessness: Build more housing

LOS ANGELES — For homeless advocates, Monday was a victory.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision not to hear an appeal of the landmark case City of Boise vs. Martin could be the death knell for anti-camping laws that advocates say criminalize the act of sleeping on the street.

Now, some say that reality could create an upswing of newfound political will to build more permanent supportive housing and temporary shelters to get people off the streets. So far, such efforts have been slow throughout much of the West Coast and often have been met with resistance from local government officials and neighborhood groups.

“I think a lot of jurisdictions were hoping that the Supreme Court would enable a much greater level of enforcement activity around the unsheltered homeless, and that won’t be the case,” said Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who along with L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas is co-chair of a governor’s task force on homelessness.

By declining to take the case, the high court let stand a 2018 ruling from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which found that it is unconstitutional to prosecute people for sleeping on public property if enough shelter or housing isn’t available as an alternative. Police can still intervene when there is criminal activity, however, such as drug use.

Dozens of cities and counties across the West had urged an appeal. Many argued that the federal appeals court’s rationale for its decision was far too broad, and local governments hadn’t been given enough direction about how much housing or shelter they needed to provide to satisfy the ruling.

“States and counties across the 9th Circuit continue to work hard to address the complex problem of homelessness and, as an overwhelming number of amicus briefs supporting the court’s review also argued, the 9th Circuit’s decision ultimately harms the very people it purports to protect,” Theane Evangelis, lead counsel for the city of Boise, Idaho, said in a statement to the Los Angeles Times. “As the case now returns to the district court for further proceedings, the city of Boise will be evaluating next steps.”

Monday’s decision likely will not change the legal landscape much in the city of Los Angeles, where thousands of units of permanent supportive housing are under construction and a previously negotiated legal settlement barring police from clearing sidewalk encampments at night is in place.

Eric Tars, an attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, worked on the initial Boise case and represented several of the plaintiffs involved in the challenge. He said he hoped the effort to get the Supreme Court’s input received enough publicity that cities would look at their own anti-camping ordinances and implement moratoriums on their enforcement.

“Our hope is that communities won’t be nickel-and-diming this decision and figuring out the bare minimum so they can be legally compliant,” he said. “We hope they take this opportunity to alter a completely unsuccessful way of dealing with homelessness.”

Steinberg, who opposed his own city’s push to have the Supreme Court hear the Boise case, has been crafting a plan with Ridley-Thomas for a possible statewide ballot measure to create a legal “right to shelter” or “right to housing.”

Cities and counties would be required to provide enough shelter beds to accommodate every homeless person living outdoors — a goal that has, so far, proved elusive in California and most Western states.

“There’s only one alternative left and that’s to actually bring people indoors with greater urgency,” Steinberg said. “And the only way that is going to happen, in my strong opinion, is if we mandate of ourselves at every level of government a legal obligation to do so.”