Supreme Court lets stand ruling allowing people to camp outside if shelters reach capacity

A major development in how cities like Spokane can address the homeless crisis unfolded Monday, as the Supreme Court let stand a Boise law which allows people to camp in public spaces if there is no shelter space available.

It stems from a case in Boise, where the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled it was unconstitutional to prosecute homeless people who sleep outside if shelters are at capacity. The City of Boise appealed that ruling and the case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court, which rejected to hear the case without comment or dissent Monday — so the law stands. Justices did not provide an explanation as to why they declined to consider the case.

“It takes the uncertainty out of the air — we now know what the lay of the landscape is,” said Maurice Smith with the Spokane Homeless Coalition. “It’s no longer an option of, ‘well, we’ll wait until a better decision.’ Nope, you’ve now got to base your planning on reality and basically the Supreme Court has given us the reality — this is where you’re at, deal with it.”

The decision marks a significant development in a decade-long legal battle over the law, which was sparked by a lawsuit filed by Robert Martin and several other people, who said they were punished for sleeping on the sidewalks in Boise and found the treatment unconstitutional.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled “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.”

Spokane has a similar ordinance on the books — it reads “no person may sit or lie down upon a public sidewalk, or upon a blanket, chair, stool, or any other object placed upon a public sidewalk, during the hours between six a.m. and midnight in the zone designated in this section” unless it’s someone “who is homeless during a time frame when shelter space is unavailable.”

The uncertainty of the Boise law’s future was a point of contention in this year’s race to become Spokane’s next mayor.

While on the campaign trail, mayor-elect Nadine Woodward often said she wanted to wait and see what happened with Boise’s case before forming any specific plans on how to address homelessness in Spokane. In a statement issued Monday to 4 News Now, Woodward said:

“Today’s decision by the Supreme Court, allowing the Martin v. Boise decision to stand, provides clarity on important legal questions and will inform my administration as we take up the ongoing City response. As Mayor, my priority is to work in close collaboration with our partners in the development of sustainable programs and policies that effectively reduce the number of people experiencing homelessness. By addressing root causes, instead of just the symptoms, we can move forward in tackling this crisis and ultimately achieve our goal of permanently lifting people out of homelessness.”​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

Over the last five years, Spokane Police have issued more than 450 sit-lie citations, along with the requirement to head to community court, to people sleeping or laying on public spaces with shelter space available.

Regina Hamm has been without a home in Spokane for about a year and it’s something she’s been ticketed for before. She told 4 News Now her camping violation is the only spot on her record.

“People don’t realize how quickly you can domino down. It took [my fiance and I] less than a month,” Hamm said. “A lot of us, we understand — it’s not necessarily pleasing to the eyes to see a lot of people sitting on the sidewalk or sitting alongside a building, [but] at the same time, sometimes that’s all we have.”

Since people can only be ticketed if there is shelter space available, some cities have asked if their employees will have to do nightly counts to ensure that number. It’s unclear how Spokane and other cities across the country will move forward with the Supreme Court’s rejection to hear Boise’s case — but Hamm is convinced we haven’t seen the last of this decade-long legal battle.

“I have a feeling that the states are going to come through with a loophole,” Hamm said. “I’m torn on it ’cause I’m like, ‘yes, that would be awesome!’ but at the same time it’s like, ‘they’ll find a loophole.'”