SCOTUS Says Cities Must Provide Housing

SCOTUS Says Cities Must Provide Housing

On Monday, Dec. 16, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal of Martin vs. Boise, allowing the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling to stand. Boise declared that it was unconstitutional to remove homeless people from public land without providing shelter space. The 9th Circuit hears cases for Idaho, California, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Nevada, Arizona, Alaska and Hawaii.

The case began in 2009, in response to a Boise ordinance from 1992 which prohibited sleeping on public grounds. In 2014, the City decided to prevent its police from enforcing anti-camping ordinances until they had shelter space to provide as an alternative to encampment; nonetheless, the 9th Circuit went ahead with issuing its decision. 

In 2006, the 9th Circuit ruled against anti-camping laws In Los Angeles. After receiving tickets and fines of $25 to $75 for camping on the sidewalk, Robert Martin and numerous other homeless people joined a lawsuit against the laws, arguing that they were unconstitutional because they enforce cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the 8th amendment. The 9th Circuit cited the 1962 Robinson v.s. California case, which ruled against parts of the state law that made narcotic addiction a criminal offense for the same violation of the 8th amendment. After the 2006 ruling, the city of Los Angeles negotiated a settlement to cease enforcement between the hours of 9 p.m. to 6 a.m.

Now, the precedent has been set for all states in the 9th circuit and will remain. SCOTUS’s decision has been seen by many homeless advocates as a win and a step in the right direction. However, opponents of the decision have complained about the lack of clarity that it leaves. They say it is unclear how cities can regulate their public spaces and claim that it ties cities’ hands from being able to protect public health and safety. 

Advocates believe that the push to offer shelter and alternative housing will actually increase public health and safety for the long term. Certainly, it will make a difference for the nearly 200,000 out of over 550,000 homeless people in the U.S. who found themselves unsheltered on a single night in January 2018. California is home to nearly a quarter of the country’s homeless, and L.A. County in particular has seen a 16% increase in its homeless population in the last year alone.

Anti-camping ordinances have done nothing to change those numbers, and the need for more shelter spaces has become increasingly apparent to the cities of L.A. County as the numbers rise. This case’s decision is merely a push, but it’s a start. 

What does this mean for the City of Whittier?

The Whittier City Council recently passed several ordinances criminalizing public land encampments. The SCOTUS decision may mean that these ordinances are unenforceable. To comply with the Boise decision, the City must focus on housing over policing. This includes creating 280 emergency beds as well as long-term housing solutions.

To clear away red tape, the Council recently declared a state of emergency on homelessness. Is Council ready to move forward, past the SCOTUS decision? Sustainable City News reached out to all five members of Council for comment, and was granted interviews by Cathy Warner and Henry Bouchot.

Warner says she is frustrated by the decision. “I think it’s kind of interesting that at some points in time, larger entities, i.e., state, federal, in this case the Supreme Court, sometimes they will take on a situation and want to give us direction, kind of take away our local control, and in this situation, where we we’re asking for their assistance, they declined to give it,” she said. Warner says she hopes that Council will continue to move forward with the efforts it has already started, including its recent decision to expand from two to 11 designated City beds at Whittier’s First Day, as they become available.

Bouchot says he is encouraged by the steps his colleagues have already taken towards solutions, including undertaking a census of the homeless population in Whittier, agreeing to enter into settlement discussions with District Court Judge David Carter, and exploring novel ways to create more housing in Whittier.

Bouchot said, “But to comply with Boise, we can’t just create new beds on paper. We have to create actual beds. I hope that we as a council will accept the law as it is written, and finally start to come to grips with the realities of the situation. I pray that we do not seek to delay or fund novel but constitutionally dubious ways to kick the can down the road when it comes to homelessness. I hope that we’ll be honest and straightforward with the residents of Whittier and give them the tools that we need to finally solve this issue. It’s not an issue that we can’t solve. It’s a question of whether we truly want to.”

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