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Supreme Court won’t hear appeal in case that requires cities to have shelter space available to ban homeless camping

Dec. 16, 2019 Updated Mon., Dec. 16, 2019 at 10:15 p.m.

Nic Mischke and Angela Dallman, along with their possessions, spend the afternoon of Nov. 1, 2019, at Balfour Park in Spokane Valley. Storing property, and camping, is no longer allowed in Balfour Park. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Nic Mischke and Angela Dallman, along with their possessions, spend the afternoon of Nov. 1, 2019, at Balfour Park in Spokane Valley. Storing property, and camping, is no longer allowed in Balfour Park. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
By Rebecca White and Adam Shanks The Spokesman-Review

The U.S. Supreme Court declined Monday to hear an appeal of a landmark 2018 lower court decision setting limits on cities’ abilities to enforce laws against camping in city streets and parks.

In the case of Martin v. City of Boise, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found that the city’s criminal enforcement of laws prohibiting camping on public property amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

By denying Boise’s petition for a review of the case, the Supreme Court leaves the lower court’s order in place.

In her ruling, Circuit Judge Marsha Berzon wrote that “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 premise they had a choice in the matter.”

In its appeal to the Supreme Court, attorneys representing Boise contended that the appeals court decision already had “devastating consequences” and “eliminates the ability of state and local governments to protect the health and safety of their residents.”

Homelessness became a focal point of debate in this year’s Spokane mayoral election between former television news anchor Nadine Woodward and City Council President Ben Stuckart, with Woodward accusing the city of adopting policies that amounted to “warehousing” the homeless without instilling a sense of personal accountability.

During the campaign, Woodward advocated that the city hold off on opening any new emergency homeless shelters that have few restrictions on drug and alcohol intoxication until the city of Boise’s appeal to the Supreme Court is adjudicated.

In a statement, Mayor-elect Woodward said the Supreme Court’s stance “offers clarity on important legal questions and will inform my administration as we take up the ongoing city response.”

She reiterated campaign promises to address “root causes, instead of just the symptoms” of homelessness, but did not respond to a question about whether she would now be more willing to consider a new “low-barrier” shelter in Spokane.

Stuckart had argued that the odds were long that the Supreme Court would even take up the case, noting how many thousands of appeals land at its doorstep. He found Monday’s inaction by the Supreme Court validating.

“Telling someone they can’t live on the streets and have nowhere for them to go didn’t make much sense. I agreed with the (9th Circuit) ruling. People are just going to have to provide low-barrier shelters.’

The decision sparked outcry from municipal leaders throughout the western U.S., including Spokane, even though city officials said the city’s current laws comply with the appeals court’s ruling.

Spokane and Spokane Valley were both part of a brief filed in support of Boise’s appeal to the Supreme Court earlier this year by a number of organizations, including the National League of Cities, Washington State Association of Municipal Attorneys, Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs and several other organizations.

The “amicus curiae,” or “friend of the court,” brief, was one of several filed by stakeholders in this year.

Spokane has a law that bars people from sitting or lying on downtown sidewalks during the daytime, but it explicitly states that it can only be enforced when there is enough shelter space available to provide the homeless with an alternative. It has a similar law against camping on public property.

Spokane Valley and Spokane County also have passed similar restrictions on public camping, which the two governments do not enforce if there is not shelter space available.

Spokane Valley’s ordinance differs from Spokane County and the city of Spokane. It singles out three city properties where camping is never allowed. While some churches do offer services to people who are homeless in Spokane Valley, there are not any shelters in the city. The city instead funds shelters in Spokane through a partnership with the county.

Spokane Valley council members called the court’s decision shortsighted and disappointing.

Councilman Arne Woodard said the Supreme Court’s inaction would likely lead to lawsuits and confusion.

“This is a huge, huge issue across the nation,” he said, “and I think (the courts) are shortsighted not to do anything.”

He said he also believes Spokane Valley residents aren’t ready for a new set of homeless shelters to open in the city.

Mayor Rod Higgins said the court’s decision leaves Spokane Valley with very few options to address homelessness and keep its public parks usable for the general public. He said the 9th Circuit’s decision had caused “consternation” in Spokane Valley, and he hoped the Supreme Court would clarify what cities can do to keep public property safe and address homelessness.

“I think we go back and think about it,” he said. “What we have right now it not working.”

Spokane Valley Councilman Ben Wick said he was surprised by the 9th Circuit’s decision, but he doesn’t anticipate it would change the city’s approach to homelessness in Spokane Valley.

Spokane city spokeswoman Marlene Feist said the city “had hoped for additional clarification from the Supreme Court,” but “we remain confident that our ordinances are appropriate because they require available shelter space” in order to be enforced.

Spokane City Councilman Breean Beggs said the city “future-proofed” its ordinances to comply with the Boise decision before it was even issued. It continues to comply with the parameters of the ruling, which he said was the “logical conclusion” based on case law.

“You don’t put someone in jail for something they can’t help. If you have no shelter, you still need to sleep,” Beggs said.

Beggs noted that the ruling does not mandate every city and town implement an online census count of available shelter beds, but only prevents them from jailing people who don’t have access to shelter.

“It’s not quite as onerous as some lawyers have made it out to be,” Beggs said.

With the case settled, Beggs said he hopes it’s effect makes it “even more likely that we’ll put together a regional approach to addressing homeless.”

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