Supreme Court Refuses to Overturn Idaho Case Giving Homeless the Right to Sleep in Public Places

The U.S. Supreme Court denied a petition by Boise, ID to review Martin v. Boise, December 16, 2019, leaving in place earlier rulings by the 9th Circuit that homeless persons cannot be punished for sleeping outside when there are no adequate alternatives.

This decision leaves in place the April 2019 9th Circuit ruling which covers nine western states and sets national precedence. The covered states are Alaska, Washington, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, California, Nevada, Hawaii and Arizona.

The original case was filed in 2009 by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, seeking to prevent homeless people from being punished for sleeping on the streets when they have no other option. The goal of the suit was to force localities to offer affordable housing as the primary solution to homelessness.

Boise had a “Camping & Disorderly Conduct Ordinance” against homeless persons. In 2018, the 9th Circuit found 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 that they had a choice in the matter.”

The High Court refusal to consider the case affirms that within the 9th Circuit, “the 8th Amendment precludes the enforcement of a statute prohibiting sleeping outside against homeless individuals with no access to alternative shelter.”

This ruling does not prohibit cities from addressing street encampments; it just means they have to do it in constructive ways that reduce harm and actually assists in ending homelessness. Putting homeless people in jail simply takes up jail space that could be used for dangerous criminals and imposing fines they cannot pay further inhibits their ability to afford housing.

Early in the case, the Department of Justice recognized that “criminalizing public sleeping in cities with insufficient housing and support for homeless individuals does not improve public safety outcomes or reduce the factors that contribute to homelessness.”

The victory in this case is not that it allows homeless people to sleep in public areas; the victory is that it will force communities to address homelessness proactively through development of adequate affordable housing, while providing safe and appropriate emergency shelter in the meantime.