U.S. Supreme Court will not take up Boise’s controversial homeless camping case

Hayley Harding Idaho Statesman//December 17, 2019//

U.S. Supreme Court will not take up Boise’s controversial homeless camping case

Hayley Harding Idaho Statesman//December 17, 2019//

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The night before police evicted a homeless camp from the alleys behind two Boise shelters, people who lived in the camp were subdued and seemed resigned to their eviction. Photo by Sven Berg/Idaho Statesman

The U.S. Supreme Court will not take up Boise’s appeal in the case of Martin v. Boise, which addresses whether the city can ticket homeless people for “camping” in public, filings showed Monday.

Advocates for people who are homeless considered the decision a victory as news came down. Theane Evangelis, Boise’s lead counsel on the case, disagreed, saying in a statement that “the 9th Circuit’s decision ultimately harms the very people it purports to protect.”

At the center of the case was Boise’s ordinance, first adopted in 1922, that prohibited people from sleeping in public spaces.

Last September, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that cities cannot prosecute people for sleeping on the streets if there is nowhere else for them to go, saying that violates the Eighth Amendment and amounts to unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment.

The city appealed it to the Supreme Court because “if the 9th Circuit’s ruling is allowed to stand, then cities will not have the tools they need to prevent a humanitarian crisis on their own streets,” Mayor David Bieter said in an August news release. The city has issued seven camping citations this year.

That 9th Circuit ruling now stands, but Evangelis said the city “will be evaluating next steps” as the case returns to District Court. What those next steps look like is up in the air — Bieter’s spokesman, Mike Journee, said in a phone call Monday that it’s up to Mayor-elect Lauren McLean’s administration to make the decision on how to move forward.

Bieter has been an advocate for the city’s right to ticket, including throughout the mayoral campaign. It was one of the issues that differentiated him from McLean, who has said that although she is against ticketing people who are homeless, she would not pull the city from the case if it was taken up. On Monday, Bieter said in a news release that the decision was “disappointing.”

“Without the ability to enforce this ordinance, much of what we’ve accomplished in providing permanent supportive housing and other services for those experiencing homelessness could be jeopardized,” he said in the release. “To avoid that, I encourage the incoming city administration and city council to continue fighting this case in local federal court.”

McLean did not comment on whether her administration would continue to pursue the case in a statement Monday, instead saying that the city “needed to be planning for this scenario.”

“I look forward to continuing and expanding the City of Boise’s good work with key community partners in housing and homelessness, and believe we have effective, humane, and constitutionally sound solutions in our grasp,” McLean said in a statement.

The 9th Circuit is the largest court of appeals, meaning that its ruling directly affected not only Boise and all of Idaho, but also California, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Nevada, Arizona, Alaska and Hawaii. The decision was considered a victory by advocates for people who are homeless, but cities across the 9th Circuit have struggled to work within the ruling.

Boise had hired Gibson Dunn, a powerful Los Angeles-based legal firm, for the case. The city paid $75,000 to the firm for them to write the legal argument to get the case before the Supreme Court.

Four justices are required to vote in favor of taking up a case, but the public does not know how it played out — those decisions are made behind closed doors and the court didn’t give any reasoning why it made the decision it did.

Jodi Peterson, director of Interfaith Sanctuary, said in a phone interview Monday that the court’s decision was “absolutely the best-case scenario.”

“Now we as entities must look at real solutions to address homelessness,” she said. “We can’t just lock people in a jail cell over it.”

Boise has created a “Grow Our Housing” effort to try to address the city’s needs, an initiative that thus far has included reducing restrictions on backyard apartments and cottages, and promoting a “healthy housing ecosystem.”

That’s not enough for many people struggling with homelessness. Even working a full-time job above minimum wage, people are finding that rent prices combined with other hardships can make it all but impossible to afford housing. Officials estimate there to be between 120 and 140 chronically homeless people in Boise.

Boise opened New Path Community Housing, an apartment building west of downtown for 40 chronically homeless families and individuals, in late 2018. It also broke ground in July on the 27-unit Valor Pointe apartments, a similar project with housing and services for homeless veterans, at 4203 W. State St. Valor Pointe is expected to open in 2020.

Geoffrey McCauley, a 34-year-old guest at Interfaith Sanctuary who has lived in Boise for about two years, said ending ticketing is one of the biggest steps the city could take to support people who are homeless.

“This decision is a step in the right direction,” he said. “Getting a ticket and not being able to pay it and going to jail over and over is a waste of resources, and it makes things worse for people. I’m so glad this happened the way it did, and I know a lot of other people in the community are going to be, too.”