Sleeping rough

On Monday, the United States Supreme Court refused to hear an appellate case that effectively criminalized camping and sleeping in public spaces. The decision was described as a “significant victory for homeless activists” in a Dec. 17 Los Angeles Times article. It’s also a victory for fans of legislation that’s rooted in common sense; i.e; you can’t ticket the homeless into housing.

The case, Martin v. Boise, came from a decade-old instance where a group of individuals sued the City of Boise for consistently ticketing them for sleeping outside. According to National Public Radio, the law criminalizing public camping was eventually found unconstitutional by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled last year that it violated the homeless community’s 8th amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment.

The finding is almost poetic, as there’s already nothing more cruel and unusual than being forced by financial, medical or other circumstances to sleep on the streets to begin with—only for the local government to then ludicrously charge these individuals more money. In Reno, violation of city code 8.23.090, “camping without a permit,” is a misdemeanor worth a $115 ticket.

Proponents of such laws argue that they give cities—through use of Police force—the ability to break up potentially dangerous or unsanitary encampments, and that doing so is somehow perversely more kind to the homeless than otherwise, sentiments echoed by local groups like Quality of Life Reno, which in October organized planned “citizen’s arrests” of local homeless people. Before they could do so, however, the police came and enforced the intended result of these “anti-vagrancy” laws: shuffled them along.

Major West Coast cities, including Los Angeles, backed Boise’s position on the matter, undoubtedly desperate for some way to address the surging homeless populations that, in the words of L.A. attorney Theane Evangelis to NPR, have been given a “Constitutional right to camp” by the 9th Circuit.

But, of course, without meaningful substantive changes to address homelessness, including government-sponsored housing, investments in local mental health resources and medically-based addiction services, simply charging the most vulnerable in our communities a fee for existing as such is, at best, a band-aid intended to advance the “out of sight, out of mind” agenda, and at worst, a state-sponsored abuse of human rights.

In July, Reno’s City Attorney Karl Hall attempted to propose a similar ordinance based on the Martin v. Boise case, and, according to an article from News 4, intended to back the Supreme Court appeal on the grounds that the 9th Circuit’s decision infringed on the city’s 14th Amendment Right—essentially turning the homeless into a class of people who are “immune from city ordinances.” The city eventually postponed the resolution, seemingly indefinitely, in another win for the common-sense campaign. Under Hall’s, L.A. County’s and Boise’s reasoning, the homeless are now a protected class immune from city laws—and all it cost them was the roof over their heads.