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U.S. Supreme Court to hear challenge on homelessness ordinance ban

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(The Center Square) – The U.S. Supreme Court announced it would hear a landmark challenge to an earlier ruling preventing enforcement of anti-camping ordinances — a challenge that was supported by a broad coalition of Republican and Democratic leaders, including California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

“California has invested billions to address homelessness, but rulings from the bench have tied the hands of state and local governments to address this issue,” said Newsom in a statement. “The Supreme Court can now correct course and end the costly delays from lawsuits that have plagued our efforts to clear encampments and deliver services to those in need.”

In 2023, Newsom filed an amicus brief supporting Supreme Court review of a 2018 Ninth Circuit Court ruling in Martin v. Boise that local courts in nine states and United States territories in the Pacific have often used to prevent the adoption of anti-encampment policies.

That ruling determined cities cannot enforce anti-camping ordinances if inadequate shelter beds are available for their local homeless populations. Other judges have used this ruling to make more strict standards on a local level that must be met for homeless encampments to be cleared.

The ruling applies to Alaska, Arizona, California, Guam, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, the Northern Mariana Islands, Oregon and Washington.

Under the ruling, which states, “[e]ven where shelter is unavailable, an ordinance prohibiting sitting, lying, or sleeping outside at particular times or in particular locations might well be constitutionally permissible,” some cities have attempted to create more limited, time-and-place specific ordinances.

One city seeking to find the limits of Martin v. Boise is Grants Pass, Oregon, which passed an ordinance banning homeless individuals from using bedding, sleeping bags, or other material used for bedding purposes, or using stoves, lighting fires, or erecting structures of any kind while still allowing them to sleep in city parks. In Gloria Johnson et al. v. City of Grants Pass, the Ninth Circuit ruled again against anti-camping ordinances, with the majority of judges stating, “The City claims homeless persons are free to sleep in City parks, but only without items necessary to facilitate sleeping outdoors.”

Cases decided at the circuit appeals level after the district appeals level can be sent to the Supreme Court. In their calls for Supreme Court review, elected officials echoed the opinion of dissenting judge Daniel Collins, who wrote, “The net result, for class certification purposes, is that any issue of individualized involuntariness is set aside and Martin is thereby reduced to a simplistic formula — to be resolved on a classwide basis—into whether the number of homeless persons in the jurisdiction exceeds the number of available shelter beds.”

While statewide occupancy numbers are not available, a 2017 analysis by the county-wide Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority found shelters run by LAHSA had a system-wide average 78% utilization rate, well short of the 90% required in their contracts. With LAHSA 2017 data finding the county had 16,623 shelter beds and 40,082 unsheltered homeless individuals, that means the city had a rough average of 3,657 shelter beds on a given night. Assuming a steady utilization rate with LAHSA’s 2022 bed and homeless totals, it’s likely the LAHSA system has approximately 5,558 beds available on a given night, or enough for the majority of San Francisco’s entire homeless population. Should the Supreme Court overturn Martin v. Boise, it’s likely cities across America’s Ninth Circuit purview would adopt more stringent anti-camping laws and place more homeless individuals into shelters or behavioral mental health or substance abuse treatment centers.