Today the Supreme Court declined to review a U.S. Circuit Court case deciding the criminality of homeless persons sleeping outside in western states. Ninth circuit states grappling to confront their ever growing homeless population have been at the forefront of the issue, especially after President Donald Trump’s visit to California in September this year, which prompted White House officials to launch an effort to address families living on the streets.
In September, after witnessing Los Angeles’ homeless population of 49,995, the Trump administration published a report detailing a conservative approach to addressing homelessness. In one instance, the report stated that homelessness could be decreased if states became less tolerant of people sleeping on the streets.
The Supreme Court did not explain its decision to refuse to hear the Martin v City of Boise case, but it more than likely was due to the the justices finding the city’s appeal moot. One of the questions this case asks is if the 8th Amendment applies to homeless persons that are punished by the state for sleeping outside, when no other shelter exists. The United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled that the 8th Amendment did apply, stating that enforcing a statute that penalized homeless persons sleeping outside, with no access to other shelter, satisfied the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause. The Court held that “as long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.”
The case involved 6 homeless residents from Ada County, in Boise, Idaho. Each had been cited by the Boise police for violating the “Camping Ordinance” and the “Disorderly Conduct Ordinance” after choosing to sleep in public spaces. Two of the residents stated they expected to be cited under the ordinances again and were seeking relief from future prosecution. The homeless population in Boise City, Idaho is at 713. According to the opinion, there are three emergency homeless shelters in Ada County providing a total of 354 beds. Each of these emergency shelters has limitations over period of stay. The Circuit Court’s decision bans state and local governments from citing persons camping on public property, unless alternate shelter is available.
The Supreme Court’s decision to not hear the case is a significant victory for homelessness activists and a set back for state and local governments looking for a solution to clear their streets.