L.A. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger this week said it was “disappointing” the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal of a Boise, Idaho, case in which a lower court defended the right of homeless people to sleep and camp in public spaces when no other shelter is available.
The high court’s non-move effectively upholds a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and prohibits police from citing homeless people for camping in parks, streets and other public places. That’s now the law of the land in the Ninth Circuit, which includes the Los Angeles area.
Homeless advocates had ripped the original Boise law allowing homeless campers to be ticketed — saying the law criminalized homelessness. Boise had appealed the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, looking to continue enforcing local restrictions against street camping.
Barger, who is a prominent advocate for homeless causes, said the Supreme Court taking a pass on the Boise appeal amounts a blow to governments’ ability to regulate homeless encampments — and ultimately to help homeless people.
The case has particular resonance in the L.A. area, which has what officials acknowledge is a homeless “crisis.”
“A review by the Supreme Court providing clarity to the Boise ruling could have added one more tool in our set of strategies to combat this humanitarian crisis,’’ said Barger, whose Fifth Supervisorial District includes South Pasadena, said of the high court’s non-action on Monday.
The matter grew out of a 10-year-old case — Boise v. Martin — in which six homeless people sued the city of Boise for enforcing a local ordinance by repeatedly ticketing them for sleeping outside. The city later amended the ordinance, barring citations at times when shelters are filled and homeless people have no others places to go besides the streets.
Still, last year, the Ninth Circuit — which encompasses nine western states, including California — said the Boise law was unconstitutional, amounting to “cruel and unusual punishment” of homeless people.
Numerous groups around the Ninth Circuit — including the L.A. County Board of Supervisors — had filed amicus, or “friend of the court” briefs, citing public-safety concerns as well as concerns for homeless people.
“Public encampments, now protected by the Constitution under the Ninth Circuit’s decision, have spawned crime and violence, incubated disease and created environmental hazards that threaten the lives and well-being both of those living on the streets and the public at large,’’ lawyers for Boise told the Supreme Court, in documents quoted by National Public Radio.
NPR also quoted L.A. attorney Theane Evangelis, representing Boise, as saying the Supreme Court’s non-action ultimately puts the public, including homeless people, at greater risk.
“Cities’ hands are tied now by the Ninth Circuit Decision because it effectively creates a constitutional right to camp,’’ Evangelis told NPR.
Both the City of Los Angeles and the County of L.A. are particularly impacted by homelessness. The 2019 homeless count by the L.A. Homeless Services Authority documents more than 36,000 homeless people in the city of L.A., some 27,000 unsheltered. In L.A. County, the numbers are about 59,000 total homeless, including some 44,000 unsheltered.
Barger issued a statement Monday, shortly after the Supreme Court took a pass on the Boise appeal.
“In September, the Board of Supervisors voted in support of my motion co-authored with Supervisor Janice Hahn to file an amicus brief for the United States Supreme Court to review the Boise v. Martin ruling and provide greater clarity on how local governments should interpret these laws,’’ Barger’s statement said.
“(Monday’s) decision by the Supreme Court to not review the Boise ruling by the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals is disappointing.’’
Despite the high court denying L.A. County, in Barger’s words, “one more tool’’ to battle the homeless crisis, the supervisor added, “We continue to move forward with a sense of urgency.’’
“This includes my recent housing initiative that calls for a private sector expert to help the county develop short- and long-term supportive housing solutions in partnership with local cities,’’ Barger said.
Barger cited the City of Bellflower as “a good example of how a community can work to solve this issue at the local level.’’
“Bellflower has committed to building sufficient homeless housing and has entered into a settlement agreement with a nonprofit agency in Orange County that will allow them to serve their own residents first and foremost,’’ Barger said.
“Our support of the Boise review was about balancing the needs of those on the street with the public health and safety concerns of all residents throughout Los Angeles County.
“Despite (Monday’s) decision, Los Angeles County will continue to combat homelessness, exploring every available option.”
Homeless advocates had been heavily critical of the origial Boise ordiance.
“Criminalization isn’t a strategy for ending homelessness. It is the consequence of not having a strategy,’’ Nan Roman, CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, told USA Today.
Paul Boden, head of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, also lauded the Ninth Circuit’s ruling.
“This could challenge … communities to actually present a real alternative,” Boden said. “Cities have been following Boise, yes, but interpreting it their own ways and still sweeping homeless camps, still moving people around like they shouldn’t be doing. They say they’re offering shelter as alternatives, but there never really is enough.’’
For her part, Barger lists as her top priority in her 2020 re-election campaign working “to improve treatment for the homeless, foster children, seniors, veterans, those with disabilities and mental illness.’’
She was an early supporter of 2017’s Measure H, which ticketed a quarter-cent county sales tax to aid the homeless crisis. She also advocates a comprehensive approach to the problem, addressing causes such as mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction, domestic violence and joblessness.