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California Abdicating Duties on Housing People Who are Unhoused

With more than 170,000 people experiencing homelessness in California, most of whom are Black and Brown,  many government actors are seeking clarification on their ability to sweep unhoused people out of public view. More pointedly, these government actors, after several losses in lower courts, are asking for a blessing from the highest court to remove unhoused people from the street without any guarantees of building or investing in either enough shelter or enough housing for those who need it.

The epidemic of houselessness is ever present –  touching every area of our state, and now every area of our legislative and legal systems. The historic reach of the problem is now forcing our big blue state to stretch. How we choose to do so is the question. At present, our cities and counties are reaching past the courts, perceiving them not as arbiters of facts or interpreters of the legal boundaries of enforcement, but rather as obstacles. Treating the lower courts as a scapegoat in their lackluster efforts to address this crisis, several counties and cities have asked for Supreme Court intervention. The goal is to overturn a series of decisions that protect the civil rights of the unhoused in Johnson v. Grants Pass.

In 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in Martin v. Boise that cities cannot enforce anti-camping ordinances against unhoused people without shelter beds available for them. The Boise decision rests on the undisputed fact that human beings need sleep in order to sustain life, and a City’s failure to provide a sheltered place to rest or sleep, paired with the active criminalization of sleeping outdoors, is inhumane under the 8th Amendment. 

Johnson v. Grants Pass is the Ninth Circuit’s recent ruling that modestly expands Boise to include administrative enforcement of anti-camping ordinances and prohibitions on using blankets and pillows to sleep. And the Coalition on Homelessness and several unhoused individuals sued the City of San Francisco over their violation of Boise and other policies on the books for destroying encampments without offering shelter to residents.

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