Thanks To The US Supreme Court, Homeless Individuals Can Camp On Sidewalks Downtown If They Want

by William Skink

A lot of people at City Council last night were there to protest the condo project, but instead of voting, Council members threw it back to committee.

I watched some of the proceedings online and caught the cheerleading for the BID, Missoula’s Business Improvement District. The BID was up for a 10 year renewal and people like Tim France, owner of Wordens, championed the safety and security of downtown that the BID-funded law enforcement has helped to instill. If it wasn’t clear what France was referring to, he specifically mentioned panhandling and transients (Tim doesn’t like transients unless they are buying cheap Steel Reserve from his store).

A legal battle that originated in Boise, Idaho, could have an impact on how municipalities and counties deal with those without homes. Thanks to a recent refusal by the Supreme Court to take up the case, the 9th circuit ruling stands.

Here is NPR’s reporting:

The Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear an appeal in a case originating from Boise, Idaho, that would have made it a crime to camp and sleep in public spaces.

The decision to let a ruling from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals stand is a setback for states and local governments in much of the West that are grappling with widespread homelessness by designing laws to regulate makeshift encampments on sidewalks and parks.

The case stems from a lawsuit filed nearly a decade ago. A handful of people sued the city of Boise for repeatedly ticketing them for violating an ordinance against sleeping outside. While Boise officials later amended it to prohibit citations when shelters are full, the 9th Circuit eventually determined the local law was unconstitutional.

In a decision last year, the court said it was “cruel and unusual punishment” to enforce rules that stop homeless people from camping in public places when they have no place else to go. That means states across the 9th Circuit can no longer enforce similar statutes if they don’t have enough shelter beds for homeless people sleeping outside.

This raises some very interesting questions for officials in Missoula. Is land at Reserve Street owned by the Montana Department of Transportation considered public? If not, would enforcing no trespassing, which MDOT has clearly indicated with obvious signage, still be feasible?

Another question I have is about the availability of shelter beds. Missoula has cobbled together a winter shelter plan to allegedly accommodate those in need, but people still choose to sleep outside and in cars. What would happen if people started popping tents on sidewalks downtown, or on the County Courthouse lawn? What would law enforcement do?

I believe inaction at Reserve Street by city and county officials is strategic. Law enforcement could still ticket people for illegal dumping, illegal fires and theft of property if they wanted to, but then the homeless camp could shift to a more problematic location, like Missoula’s gem of gentrification, the downtown core.

Here’s some more on the ripple effects of this legal decision:

The nine states in the Ninth Circuit hold almost two-thirds of the country’s unsheltered homeless — California alone holds almost half — and many cities in those states don’t have enough shelter beds for them. In many cities, enforcement was put on hold as a result of the ruling.

The Honolulu City Council passed anti-camping laws only to have the police say they were unenforceable. In Lacey, Washington, the city passed anti-camping laws but acknowledged it couldn’t enforce them until it opened a shelter. In Costa Mesa, California, the city waited to enforce the rules until it could open a 50-bed shelter at a church in April.

Other cities have found ways around the law. The Berkeley City Council backed away from a proposal to prohibit lying down and camping at a new public transit plaza downtown, but passed a law banning placement of “objects” that prevent use of “any portion” of sidewalks — a change advocates say was against the spirit of the ruling.

In Anchorage, Democrats in the state legislature told the mayor in a letter to clean up camps in the parks because there were other places outside for people to sleep.

“So long as Anchorage has some place individuals can sleep outside, case law does not limit removal of waste … left by drug addicts, thieves, and other squatters/campers,” said the letter.

The gate closed somewhat dramatically in Olympia, Washington. Olympia’s downtown homeless population had grown to 300 over the summer of 2018, and the city was planning what would have been one of its largest sweeps ever. But on the eve of the removal, the city attorney told Keith Stahley, the city’s community planning director, about the ruling.

“So we said, ‘Put the brakes on and back to the drawing board; what do we do?’” Stahley said.

Months later, Olympia opened a sanctioned homeless camp downtown — comprising over 100 city-issued gray and green tents in neat rows — similar to the tent cities Seattle opened. Olympia enacted some rules, made sure there were beds at the local Union Gospel Mission and began enforcing anti-camping laws again.

While officials will claim their hands are tied, there doesn’t seem to be anything in this ruling that would prohibit local officials from removing trash from an encampment. Laws can still apply to those without a roof over their head and they should still apply. No one is above the law, right Democrats?

Selective enforcement of laws is always problematic and right now it seems that is what’s happening at encampments like the one at Reserve Street. At least there was finally some more volunteers out there last Saturday removing trash after a long line of carts appeared and were stuffed with trash for weeks.

It will be interesting to see what happens as this issue evolves. I’m sure city officials are quietly hoping that those without homes stay at camps outside of the downtown core, and if they don’t, how will the city protect it’s gentrified economic engine which they have invested so much public money in?

Stay tuned…

About Travis Mateer

I'm an artist and citizen journalist living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
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1 Response to Thanks To The US Supreme Court, Homeless Individuals Can Camp On Sidewalks Downtown If They Want

  1. Eric says:

    You really are passionate about this issue.

    And you have put in real time and effort trying to help the homeless situation.

    So if you woke up tomorrow as Mayor of Missoula, and you had 6+ votes at your disposal,
    could you fix the problem, and where would you start?

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