Federal Court rules cities cannot arrest people for sleeping on public property unless they have provided adequate shelter

  • A federal court ruled last week it will not review a decision that cities cannot arrest people for sleeping on public property unless they have provided adequate shelter. The case, Martin v. City of Boise, was before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The ruling could still be taken up the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • The ruling means cities cannot enforce anti-vagrancy or similar laws designed to clear the streets of the homeless, but it also can’t force them to build new shelters to house the homeless. The court ruled that punishing the homeless who have nowhere else to sleep is a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which bans cruel and unusual punishment.
  • “Criminally punishing homeless people for sleeping on the street when they have nowhere else to go is inhumane, and we applaud the Court for ruling that it is also unconstitutional,” Maria Foscarinis, executive director at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, said in a statement. “It’s time for Boise to stop trying to hide its homelessness problem with unconstitutional ordinances, and start proposing real solutions.”

The likes of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have come out hard against anti-homelessness laws in cities nationwide. The organization derided laws encouraging homeless people in Houston to go to shelters — which are often full — as rules that “are ineffective, waste limited public resources, violate basic human and constitutional rights, and strip homeless Houstonians of their dignity.” In an interview with Curbed, Eve Garrow, a homelessness policy analyst at the ACLU, said the organization plans to start an education campaign making sure cities are aware of the ruling and how they can ensure they are not in violation.

Battling homelessness remains an issue for cities, with the likes of Chicagoand Los Angeles looking to invest more money and try new initiatives to get the problem under control. But that comes in the face of warnings from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that homelessness ticked up in 2018. It continues to be a concern as municipalities look to take a holistic approach and use what is known as a services-based system to help those that are experiencing homelessness, while the likes of Kaiser Permanente have pledged money of their own to help out.

This ruling should make city leaders think twice about passing or enforcing anti-vagrancy laws, and instead consider how they take care of their homeless population, both in providing shelter and services that can help them get on their feet and into permanent housing. Cities have already taken steps to be in compliance and not criminalize homelessness, including the city of Modesto, CA, which has a park dedicated to housing the homeless.