A popular method for criminalizing homelessness is unconstitutional, the federal appeals court governing the western U.S. ruled this week.
Cities cannot arrest or cite a person for sleeping outdoors unless it can prove it had a shelter bed or other indoor housing option available at the time, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found almost a decade after a group of homeless people in Idaho sued over Boise’s ban on “sleeping rough.”
Such sleeping bans have spread across the country over the years that the case has wound through the courts, alongside various other efforts to criminalize a homeless person’s daily existence. More than 30 different cities and towns outlawed sleeping in public between 2006 and 2016, according to a National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty report that found dramatic increases in laws criminalizing homelessness in 187 towns around the country. More than 60 outlawed camping in public for similar reasons.
This week’s ruling will not annul every one of those laws. But cities in the Ninth Circuit’s jurisdiction — Montana, Arizona, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, and California — will have to abandon or amend their policies. Similar lawsuits elsewhere have largely been settled, limiting their impact to particular cities like Sarasota, Florida.
The court’s decision that sleeping rough can still be a crime if the person refuses to accept a shelter bed is likely to leave some homeless people exposed to the costly and psychologically damaging effects of being jailed. Many who sleep on the streets have had bad experiences in shelters and feel safer in self-made street communities. The same cities that have tried to make homelessness criminal — despite ample evidence that it’s three times cheaper to simply give people free housing — often take an aggressive and destructive approach to such tent camps, as ThinkProgress has detailed in the past.
The ruling may also help re-focus public attention on housing market issues and homelessness policy questions at both local and federal level. The subject received substantial media attention throughout the Obama years, as criminalization efforts ramped up and homelessness advocates won valuable changes to federal policy. Those increased efforts and eyeballs helped drive homelessness down from shocking historical highs following the Great Recession.
But with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) now under new management, homelessness rose again in 2017 for the first time in several years. HUD Secretary Ben Carson has repeatedly proposed changes to public housing policy that would further exacerbate the problem by effectively evicting millions of families who cannot absorb the increased costs he wants tenants to bear. Carson has also reversed some small strides made under his predecessors to improve both the quality and amount of the country’s public housing capacity.