Let’s suppose you’re homeless and don’t have anywhere to sleep except a public park. Do you have a constitutional right to sleep in the park? Well, it’s a free country, isn’t it?
In December, the U.S. Supreme Court turned away a case out of Boise, Idaho involving a camping ban on the homeless, with criminal penalties. An advocate for the homeless said it was a good decision because authorities should not be criminally punishing homeless people in America who have nowhere to go.
The Supreme Court’s decision let stand a 2018 ruling from the 9th Circuit that enforcing criminal penalties on the homeless for sleeping or camping in public places if shelter beds are not available violates the 8th Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. But the 9th Circuit’s ruling hamstrung the ability of cities from Alaska to Arizona to deal with the homeless problem, local governments said. Boise had unsuccessfully argued its ordinance was necessary to prevent a humanitarian crisis on its streets and adversely affected public health and safety.
The 9th Circuit ruling affects different cities differently. Spokane is not affected, because its ordinance already prevented enforcement if shelter beds are not available. The situation is less clear in neighboring Spokane Valley which restricts camping unless there’s no shelter space available elsewhere in the region. Olympia and Aberdeen have opened official camps.
Homelessness is a complicated problem that may be exacerbated by bad policies and not letting the police enforce the drug laws, but it also intersects with difficult social problems like the opioid crisis. The 9th Circuit’s ruling only touches on one aspect of the overall situation. And, to be clear, it does NOT establish a blanket ‘right to camp’. It merely restricts the use of criminal penalties in certain instances. It says nothing about moving people to official camps or governmental inducements to get people to move to desired locations voluntarily.
The next lawsuit might come out of Berkeley which banned ‘objects’ on sidewalks - presumably including grocery carts and tents - perhaps as a way to get around the 9th Circuit’s ruling. Or the next case might come from Seattle, which is flexible in how it enforces its ordinance depending on what is happening each day. Advocates for the homeless are already grumbling about the increasing involvement of Seattle’s police force in clearing city streets of the homeless. But whatever happens in the so-called ‘right to camp’ cases, the Supreme Court won’t be weighing in any time soon.