Homelessness Isn’t Illegal, Federal Court Rules

April 8, 2019

Several cities in recent years have been adopting ordinances to punish or arrest people for sleeping on the streets. But a recent court ruling may set a precedent nationwide to make such ordinances illegal.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals—which covers nine states in the western U.S., including California and Washington—ruled that cities can’t criminalize people for camping or sleeping in public without any place to go. The lawsuit—Martin v. City of Boise—called into question how cities enforce laws about sleeping in public, specifically aimed at the homeless population.

“The government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter,” the court’s ruling stated.

The court ruled that cities cannot arrest or punish people for sleeping on public property unless they provide adequate and relatively accessible indoor accommodations.

“This is such an important ruling,” Eve Garrow, a homelessness policy analyst and advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union, told Curbed.com. “These enforcement actions punished people for unavoidable behavior. … From a public policy perspective, they don’t make sense, they send the wrong message, they treat those who are poor as criminals, and create fear and mistrust of those experiencing homelessness.”

Cities have been adjusting their policies in response. For example, San Francisco, Portland, and Sacramento have stopped enforcing rules regarding sleeping in public parks and sidewalks based on the new precedent, Curbed.com reports.