Respect Poverty

Supreme Court upholds homeless right to sleep in public places

a homeless encampment in a city

Story at a glance

  • Police officers in Boise, Idaho, can no longer ticket homeless people for sleeping or camping on sidewalks and parks in the city.
  • The Supreme Court refused to review the decision by lower courts to strike down parts of a law that allowed officers to issue such tickets.
  • The Ninth Circuit said that the ordinance constituted cruel and unusual punishment when there were more homeless people than available beds in the city’s shelters.

An ordinance allowing officers to ticket people sleeping or camping on sidewalks and parks in Boise, Idaho, will not be given another chance in the nation’s highest court. 

In an unsigned order, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals saying enforcement of Boise’s ordinances constituted cruel and unusual punishment when “there is a greater number of homeless individuals in [the jurisdiction] than the number of available beds [in shelters].” A district court had sided with Boise, but their decision was overturned by the Ninth Circuit. 

“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,” Ronald E. Bush, Chief Magistrate Judge of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, said in the ruling. 

The case against Boise was originally filed by six current and former residents of the city who either were homeless or had recently been homeless and had been convicted at least once of violating the ordinance. The ordinance, adopted in 1922, made it illegal to sleep or camp on streets, public areas or parks and even required police to cite anyone they saw doing so, before a 2014 amendment. Critics said the law unfairly targeted homeless people with no other place to stay or sleep. 

Boise officials argued that the ordinance was necessary to “ensure that these areas remain safe, accessible and sanitary.” 

“Cities, like Boise, who are already providing forward-thinking services to those experiencing homelessness, must have all the tools available to respond to the public health and safety dilemmas created by public encampments,” said Mayor Dave Bieter in a statement asking the Supreme Court to review the case this August. 

In January 2018, there were about 2,000 people experiencing homelessness on any given day in Idaho, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The Idaho-Stateman has reported that rising housing prices have become a problem for many Boise residents and the city is struggling to combat the issue. 

The decision applies to all states within the Ninth Circuit including California, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Nevada, Arizona, Alaska and Hawaii. More people are homeless in California than in any other state, according to HUD, where the case was closely watched.