Supreme Court Refuses to Hear Case That Would Prosecute Homeless for Sleeping on Sidewalk

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The Supreme Court on Dec. 17 refused to hear a major case from Boise, Idaho, on homelessness, challenging a lower court ruling that allows homeless people to sleep on sidewalks or in public parks if there is no other shelter space available.

The case was rejected after the Supreme Court on Monday found ordinances in Idaho’s capital violated the U.S. Constitution’s bar on cruel and unusual punishment. The ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals applies across several Western states where cities are struggling with homelessness brought on by rising housing costs and income inequality.

The appeals court held that Boise could not make it a crime for homeless people to sleep on the streets when no alternative shelter is available.

“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 appeals court said.

A homeless person is sleeping
A homeless person sleeping under sheets along a sidewalk in Los Angeles on Aug. 22, 2019. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

The decision came amid arguments from city officials that the ruling last year disrupted their efforts to regulate homeless encampments on city sidewalks. Many municipalities indicated they feared the ruling would lead to public health issues if homeless camps were allowed to proliferate.

Attorneys representing Boise wrote in their petition (pdf) to the Supreme Court: “The Ninth Circuit’s decision misapplies and radically expands this Court’s precedent, creates conflicts with five other circuit or state supreme courts, and stretches the Eighth Amendment beyond recognition.

“In doing so, it eliminates the ability of state and local governments to protect the health and safety of their residents.”

U.S. cities have struggled over the years with how to address the issue of homelessness, putting in place various local laws.

Los Angeles officials made clear their disappointment with the Supreme Court’s lower court ruling and said local officials were left unclear about what action they could take, reported the Los Angeles Times.

The case was “never an attempt to criminalize the homeless; rather, it was a pursuit of a legal framework that is clear—in comparison to a status quo that is ambiguous and confusing,” Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said in a statement.

“Letting the current law stand handicaps cities and counties from acting nimbly to aid those perishing on the streets, exacerbating unsafe and unhealthy conditions that negatively affect our most vulnerable residents,” he said.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said in a statement that homelessness can’t be solved “by moving people from one street to another,” as he promised to work on opening new shelters for the homeless.

“Our focus will remain on providing services to save lives, keeping our neighborhoods clean and healthy, opening shelters to help get people indoors more quickly, and building permanent units to keep them under a roof for good.”

Reuters contributed to this report.

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