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A Potential Turning Point in How Cities Treat the Homeless

A recent federal ruling is driving cities to revisit their local ordinances and methods of reducing homelessness.

A couple, center, who were living under a bridge carry their possessions out as police move in to clear a homeless encampment in Philadelphia.
A couple, center, who were living under a bridge carry their possessions out as police move in to clear a homeless encampment in Philadelphia.
(AP/Matt Rourke)


  • The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in September that cities can't criminalize sleeping outdoors when homeless people have no other choice.
  • The ruling impacts nine Western states and has led some cities to revisit their homeless ordinances and practices.
  • Research shows that anti-homeless laws, like anti-camping ordinances, are expensive and often ineffective. 
A federal ruling from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in September is already having an effect on how communities treat homeless people.

Martin v. Boise has been making its way through the courts since 2009. At issue is whether Boise, Idaho's ban against sleeping on the streets -- a so-called anti-camping ordinance that exists in many places across the country -- violates homeless people's Eighth Amendment rights, which protect against cruel and unusual punishment.

The court's decision, which directly impacts nine Western states, gives homeless people and advocates reasons to claim both victory and defeat.

The victory: "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," wrote Ninth Circuit Judge Marsha Berzon.

The defeat: The court ruled that shelters can turn people away if they don’t comply with religious rules or if they have reached capacity.

Boise is appealing the ruling and plans to continue as usual in the meantime. "As far as we’re concerned, the ordinance stands until we hear differently from a final court," Mike Journee, a spokesman for the city, told the Idaho Statesman.

Still, homeless rights advocates are cautiously optimistic the case could catalyze cities to finally figure out long-term solutions for chronic homelessness.  

"We want communities to see this as an opportunity, not a limitation. Criminalization of homeless, anyway you look at it, is never a positive step," says Eric Tars, senior attorney for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. "From a fiscal standpoint, it costs communities more to cycle these people through law enforcement than actually providing shelter or giving them resources." 

Research shows that the criminalization of homelessness is expensive and often ineffective. According to a 2018 study by the University of Denver, six Colorado cities spent $5 million enforcing anti-homeless ordinances over a five-year period. "Reducing or eliminating anti-homeless ordinances would achieve governmental goals of reducing ineffective spending," the study found. Similarly, San Francisco spends around $20 million a year enforcing it’s anti-homeless ordinances. 

Meanwhile, a 2015 report found that Massachusetts saved taxpayers $9,339 for every homeless person that it helped house instead of penalized.

The September ruling has already spurred several cities to act.

Modesto, Calif., dedicated a park for homeless people to camp. But the city stresses that this is a temporary solution while it works toward increasing the number of available beds in shelters and that it will continue to enforce its anti-camping ordinance in other areas. Olympia, Wash., called off a sweep of a homeless encampment. San Francisco and Portland, Ore., officials said they will stop prosecuting homeless people violating city sleeping ordinances. And Los Angeles officials said they are working on new guidance regarding encampments.

As cities look for long-term solutions to homelessness, Tars says they should avoid taking the easy route of passing more laws against homelessness and instead invest in "upstream" programs, which cost more in the beginning but can end up saving communities more money down the line and in other areas like health care. Upstream solutions include opening up vacant lots to people living out of their cars, and using bond money to create more affordable housing.

But, Tars says, these investments can be a tough sell.

"You get this push from the business community that we need to do something, and we couldn’t agree more," he says. "Where we differ, however, is that businesses and others will say to do the quick and easy thing. Whereas when you have more thoughtful approaches, you have to acknowledge those costs up front."


How Philadelphia Is Helping the Homeless

Philadelphia isn’t impacted by Martin v. Boise, but Tars says cities that are should look to its efforts to combat homelessness as a model, particularly the "Hub of Hope."

One of the city's train stations was a de facto place for homeless people to sleep. With the population it wants to help already there, the city converted it into a permanent walk-in resource center where homeless people can shower, do laundry, and receive health, housing and legal aid. The space offers dinner on the weekends and in December will expand evening meals to four times a week. They cannot, however, sleep there anymore.

The Hub of Hope sees about 250 people per day, and they saw 80,000 people in 2017, according to David Hollomon, chief of staff for Philadelphia’s Department of Homeless Services. Law enforcement likes it, says Hollomon, because it gives them a place to redirect homeless people.

Meanwhile, Philadelphia has created enough low-barrier housing -- where the only requirement to get a bed is to not be under the influence and to not incite violence -- to clear three out of four of its homeless encampments, redirecting 50 people to some form of shelter and helping 67 get a photo ID (which is required to receive some government aid). While this doesn't account for everyone in those encampments, Holloman says not everyone chooses to go to a shelter.

"Everyone in the city has been clear that we’re not criminalizing homelessness. We didn’t ever want to be perceived as doing that," Holloman says. 

Tars worries, however, that no matter what cities do, they won't make a significant dent in homelessless until they address the lack of affordable housing throughout the country.

"[The ruling] gives us a really important tool, but the danger is we’re not solving the overall affordable housing crisis," he says. "More families are paying a higher share of their income on housing, so my fear is that unsheltered homelessness is just going to continue to grow."

This appears in the Human Services newsletter. Subscribe for free.

Mattie covers all things health for Governing.

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