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California cities tell U.S. Supreme Court homeless encampment rulings ‘unworkable’

A view of the U.S. Supreme Court Building on June 23, 2022 in Washington, DC. | Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
In a legal brief filed Tuesday with the U.S. Supreme Court, a coalition of California cities railed against a string of federal court rulings on homeless encampments. | Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Fed up with homeless encampments, California local officials are seeking guidance from the nation’s most powerful judges. 

In a legal brief filed Tuesday with the U.S. Supreme Court, the California State Association of Counties and League of California Cities told the justices that a string of federal court rulings over the last five years that restrict cities’ abilities to sweep camps and order residents off the streets have made addressing health and safety concerns “unworkable.”

“The State of California and its cities and counties are engaged in unprecedented efforts to address homelessness through the creation of significant new policy initiatives and funding investments,” the league and association wrote. “However, camping ordinances can be a useful tool in appropriate circumstances in addressing the complex conditions that exist in our homeless populations.”

California cities made a similar appeal in 2019, but the court declined to hear that case. 

It all stems from a landmark 2018 decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in an Idaho case that was binding on California local governments. Judges then decided that it’s unconstitutional to criminally penalize people camping in public when they lack “access to adequate temporary shelter.” 

Since then, cities have often landed in court when trying to enforce camping bans, but the organizations said those cases haven’t clarified what’s allowed or required. Also since 2018 and during the COVID pandemic, the state’s homelessness crisis has only worsened, with more than 170,000 unhoused people this year. Most of them are unsheltered, living outdoors because most cities don’t have enough shelter beds. In some cases, unhoused people refuse available shelter beds for a variety of personal circumstances. 

The crux of the legal debate now, CalMatters reported this month, is what makes a person “involuntarily homeless”—and whether cities can sweep camps and cite residents even if it doesn’t have sufficient shelter to accommodate each resident’s individual circumstances. The California associations filed the amicus brief supporting an Oregon city which the 9th Circuit this year ruled cannot enforce a camping ban because the city doesn’t have enough shelter beds for its entire population. 

On Wednesday, more California officials weighed in. The state’s sheriff’s association and police chiefs association, as well as a group of Orange County cities, filed their own brief arguing the Idaho ruling “may have expanded the rights of those suffering from homelessness [while] the rights of business owners, taxpayers, children and other housed citizens to clean, safe, drug-free streets and public areas have been completely ignored.” 

Sacramento County District Attorney Thien Ho filed his own brief, too. And San Diego, which recently began enforcing a sweeping new camping ban, will sign on to a brief being circulated by the city of Seattle, a spokesperson for Mayor Todd Gloria said.

Will Knight, decriminalization director at the National Homelessness Law Center, previously told CalMatters he doesn’t think the Supreme Court will take up the case, given that the question has not come up prominently in federal courts in other parts of the country. Knight criticized cities for trying to get around the technical boundaries of the Idaho ruling and said they should focus instead on expanding individualized housing options for residents. 

Meanwhile, political pressure is mounting on cities to more strictly enforce their camping ban. Democratic big-city mayors and Gov. Gavin Newsom have blasted federal judges for rulings that halt encampment sweets. 

On Tuesday, Ho sued the city of Sacramento, accusing it of inadequately enforcing a number of recent camping bans such as those near schools and of ignoring residents’ requests to safety issues at camps. 

City officials have not used criminal citations in the recent bans, instead opting for “voluntary compliance” that does include ordering people to move their tents. Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg called Ho’s suit a “performative distraction.”

Homelessness increased more than 60% in Sacramento County between 2019 and 2022, to 9,300 individuals on any given night; the city and county combined have about 2,400 shelter beds.