By Miriam Raftery
January 2, 2020 (Washington D.C.) –The U.S. Supreme Court declined last month to hear an appeal of a ruling by the 9th Circuit U.S. District Court of Appeals, which held that cities and counties cannot arrest homeless people for sleeping in outdoor public spaces if a jurisdiction has failed to provide space in shelters.
San Diego County and dozens of other local governments had joined together to argue that the case should be overturned, arguing that the decision limits cities’ abilities to maintain public health and safety. In San Diego, a 2017 hepatitis-A outbreak was tied to homelessness.
But the 9th circuit held that a city ordinance banning camping in public places by the homeless “violates the 8th Amendment insofar as it imposes criminal sanctions against homeless individuals for sleeping outdoors on public property, when no alternative is available to them.”
San Diego had more than 8,100 people homeless countywide as of a January 1, 2019 count, but 27,850 people used homeless services countywide last year, Voice of San Diego reports. California, which has one of the best year-round climates, is home to around half of the nation’s homeless population.
Since the 9th circuit earlier banned homeless sweeps if shelters are full, some cities such as Los Angeles have seen an explosion of homeless tent cities.
Residents in some local communities have voiced concern over the growing number of homeless people in neighborhoods, raising concerns over crime, sanitation and blight. San Diego County’s high housing cost and shortage of affordable rental units has exacerbated the homelessness problem, though issues such as mental illness and addiction are also factors.
San Diego has previously been slapped down by courts for ordinances that had police destroying property of homeless people and citing homeless living in vehicles. The city is now focused on finding more ways to provide shelter and services to help the homeless, rather than punitive measures.
San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer issued a statement which says, “California cities will continue to see encampments grow unless they provide alternative sources of shelter.” San Diego has increased the number of shelter beds and is now offfering to dismiss citations for minor infractions such as littering if a homeless person agrees to enter a shelter for at least 30 days.
Creating shelters can pose economic problems for smaller cities such as Lemon Grove, which already faces a budget shortfall with 85% of the city’s revenues spent on firefighting and law enforcement.
Not sheltering the homeless can bring costs of its own, however, such as brush fires sparked by some homeless camps in riverbeds in East County.
In Salem, Oregon, after the city sent police to break up a homeless camp in a public park after the ruling, homeless activists knowledgeable about the high court’s action set up tents on the state capitol grounds in protest.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the homelessness dilemma.
One potential option that has been tried elsewhere is a housing first model, which provides housing for the homeless regardless of whether they enroll in programs such as rehab first. First launched in Norway and later tried in Utah and some other communities including northern California, the program has resulted in up to a 98% retention rate of formerly homeless remaining off the streets and has saved some cities money formerly spent on repeated hospitalizations of the homeless as well as money spent on arrests, prosecutions and jailing of homeless people who had not committed other crimes.
San Diego County has rolled out programs to help offer small sums to help prevent people from becoming homeless, while El Cajon has tried a multi-pronged approach including funding transportation for homeless people who wish to reunite with family elsewhere, temporary and transitional housing with services to help get people off the streets, but the homeless population remains significant.