“In 2018, a federal court issued a consequential decision about homelessness in America: People without housing can’t be punished for sleeping or camping outside on public property if there are no adequate shelter alternatives available.
The Ninth Circuit’s decision, Martin v. Boise, said that punishing homeless people with no other place to go would violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Ever since, cities and states have struggled to comply with it, crafting convoluted policies like a new camping ban in Portland, Oregon that prohibits homeless camping during the hours of 8 am to 8 pm.
As municipal backlash to Martin grew, so has the nation’s homelessness crisis, especially in the nine Western states under the Ninth Circuit’s jurisdiction, where some 42 percent of the country’s homeless population now lives.
The Supreme Court declined to hear Martin in 2019. But they now could reconsider the decision. A petition was filed in late August concerning a similar case in Grants Pass, Oregon, a city of 38,000 people. In 2022, the Ninth Circuit decided it would be unconstitutional for Grants Pass to fine homeless people sleeping on public property if there was nowhere else for them to go. The city is challenging that decision.”
“Gov. Gavin Newsom is pressing the U.S. Supreme Court to review a controversial ruling that has prevented cities from clearing homeless encampments.
In a brief filed to the high court Friday, Newsom’s office warned a ruling invalidating anti-camping ordinances in Grants Pass, Ore. had “paralyzed” cities around California by imposing an “insurmountable roadblock” that effectively bars cities from moving people from parks and sidewalks.”
“If a property owner can’t properly vet tenants and potentially can’t evict them, then they aren’t going to invest in or rent out apartments. They certainly aren’t going to make repairs to houses lived in by non-paying tenants, which will make the housing stock less adequate. We need more housing, not less, and such edicts discourage housing investment.”
“Five years ago, a federal court issued a crucial ruling. People experiencing homelessness, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals said, can’t be punished for sleeping outside on public property if there are no adequate alternatives available.
The 2018 decision in Martin v. Boise did not create the homelessness crisis, which researchers attribute primarily to the lack of affordable housing. The number of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness — meaning those sleeping on the streets, in parks, in abandoned buildings or train stations, or anywhere not meant for humans to live — was rising before the decision.
But as the number of unsheltered homeless people continued to grow over the past half-decade, the Martin decision has become a pivotal factor in shaping how cities respond to the very visible problem of tent encampments, particularly on the West Coast. While the case never gained huge name recognition, it undergirds the policy and politics of homelessness in 2023. So much of the fight about how to address homelessness today is, at this point, a fight about Martin.”
“Martin’s impact can be seen most clearly out West. Just before Christmas 2022, for example, a district judge cited Martin when she ruled that San Francisco can no longer enforce encampment sweeps — meaning clear out homeless individuals and their property from an outdoor area — since the city lacks enough shelter beds for those experiencing homelessness to move into. San Francisco appealed the decision, arguing it’s “unnecessarily broad and has put the City in an impossible situation.”
In Phoenix, Arizona, residents and business owners filed a lawsuit last summer against the city for allowing a downtown homeless encampment to grow with nearly 1,000 people, but a federal judge — echoing Martin — barred Phoenix in December from conducting sweeps if there are more homeless people than shelter beds available. A competing decision issued in March by a state judge ordered Phoenix officials to clean up the “public nuisance” at the encampment by July 10, arguing the city has “erroneously” applied Martin to date.
In Portland, Oregon, meanwhile, officials have scrambled to revise their local camping ordinance to be a “daytime” camping ban from 8 am to 8 pm instead, in recognition that any total camping ban is likely illegal under Martin.
Supporters of a more “get tough” approach to encampments say the social and political costs of allowing tent cities to proliferate are too high, and that waiting for cities to build enough new housing before acting is untenable, both morally and politically. Some think officials are getting complacent in relying on Martin as an excuse to maintain the status quo.”
“Unsheltered homelessness has risen sharply over the last seven years, and at a faster rate than homelessness overall. Unsheltered homeless people now account for 40 percent of all homeless people in the country, up from 31 percent in 2015.
Political pressure has mounted to respond to this growing problem of people sleeping in alleys, parks, and train stations. While it’s not clear this would be legal under Martin, a number of cities have turned to the idea of so-called sanctioned encampments, or legalized campsites. These are effectively designated areas where unhoused individuals can live outside, and some come with varying degrees of public services, like bathrooms, power outlets, medical care, and on-site case management.
In Portland, Oregon, lawmakers voted in November to create several large sanctioned campsites for homeless individuals, and ban the more than 700 other encampments spread across the city. Austin, Texas, has operated one sanctioned encampment of so-called “tiny homes” since 2019, on a seven-acre plot of asphalt near the airport. Denver, Colorado, is also moving to make its so-called “managed campsites” from the pandemic a permanent homelessness response tool.
The trade-off for legalized campsites, however, is that sleeping outside anywhere else in a city would then be illegal.”
“Some advocates have taken a firm stance against the idea; they see sanctioned encampments as a means to segregate and criminalize unhoused people and effectively kick the can down the road by not finding them permanent housing.”
“other cities with fewer available housing options say sanctioned encampments represent a decent interim solution, and maybe even better for unhoused residents compared to scattered campsites if cities can more effectively target social services to those corralled together.
Legalized campsites can also have a lower barrier to entry than many existing shelters, so supporters are framing them as a harm-reduction approach to homelessness.”
“Unsheltered homelessness, meaning sleeping somewhere at night that’s not primarily designed for human residence — like a car, a park, an abandoned building, or a train station — has risen sharply over the last seven years, and at a faster rate than homelessness overall. The unsheltered homeless now account for 40 percent of all homeless people in the country, up from 31 percent in 2015.
While encampments are most common in big cities, on the West Coast, and in areas with high housing costs, tents have also sprung up in places where housing is broadly available and homelessness is going down — like Houston, which saw a 63 percent drop in homelessness since 2011 but still has hundreds of encampments throughout the region.”
““Mayor [Sylvester] Turner believes addressing tent encampments is key to maintaining support for the housing-first model because the public didn’t believe with their own eyes that homelessness was actually decreasing in the city,” said Marc Eichenbaum, the special assistant to Houston’s mayor on homeless initiatives. In the past few years, Houston leaders have “decommissioned” 59 tent encampments, including the city’s largest last month. In Washington, DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser stressed that her support for encampment clearing was rooted in her commitment to the housing-first model.
“I could build half a million units of housing,” newly elected Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass told the Los Angeles Times, “and if there are still tents, people will not believe that you did anything except to steal their money.””
“researchers say the primary cause is a lack of affordable housing, stemming from both a shortage of units, and from rents rising faster than wages. They say encampments have also increased because people can’t access shelter beds, or have objections to the requirements at local shelters, like the need to relinquish their pets and personal belongings. Other people see tent encampments as offering more opportunity for privacy and safety than shelters.
Some encampments have established governance procedures and residents take on day-to-day responsibilities, while others are more informal and more fractious. Though inhabitants have a diverse range of ages, races, and gender, research suggests most tend to be men with multiple barriers to housing like mental illness, a history of evictions, or a criminal record.
In recent years, court rulings have made it more difficult for cities, especially on the West Coast, to clear encampments. In 2018, the US Ninth Circuit Court found people experiencing homelessness can’t be punished for sleeping outside on public property if there are no adequate alternatives available.
The decision only formally applies across the West, in areas under the Ninth Circuit’s jurisdiction, but when the US Supreme Court declined to hear this case, Martin v. City of Boise, in 2019, cities nationally were left to debate how they can respond to encampments in ways that will avoid new constitutional challenges. Boise says that as long as sleeping indoors is not an option, “the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.””
“City responses have typically fallen into four broad categories, ranging from quickly “sweeping” the tents and providing no services to the unsheltered living there, to formally permitting people to camp out, and even providing bathrooms, areas to prepare food, and other social services. HUD research published in 2020 found the most common strategy cities have embraced was encampment “clearance and closure with support” — meaning deploying trained outreach workers to provide people with weeks of notice that their encampment would be shutting down, working to connect them with housing and services, and making longer-term storage of their belongings available.”
“Earlier studies have suggested that clearance with no support, or a so-called “tough love” approach, does little to drive people to shelters or mitigate the broader problem of encampments. Typically the homeless often just pick up and relocate somewhere else nearby. “Clearance with little or no support may actually reduce the likelihood that people will seek shelter because it erodes trust and creates an adversarial relationship between people experiencing homelessness and law enforcement or outreach workers,” a HUD report published in 2019 concluded.”
“Amid growing community frustration, some leaders have started to pursue tougher measures on encampments, including ramping up criminal penalties on people pitching tents on public land. In at least half a dozen states, lawmakers have pushed bills based on templates from the Cicero Institute, an Austin-based think tank opposed to housing-first. The bills propose to permanently ban tent encampments and penalize cities that permit them.”
“The housing-first model calls for providing individuals with permanent housing, but it doesn’t claim that housing alone is enough. Regular check-ins by trained case managers are required, as are making social and medical supports readily available.”
“As the pandemic recedes, elected officials across deep-blue California are reacting to intense public pressure to erase the most visible signs of homelessness. Democratic leaders who once would have been loath to forcibly remove people from sidewalks, parks and alongside highways are increasingly imposing camping bans, often while framing the policies as compassionate.
“Enforcement has its place,” said Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat who has spent much of the past year trying to soothe public anger in a city that has seen its unsheltered homeless population surpass that of San Francisco — 5,000 in the most recent count compared with San Francisco’s 4,400. “I think it’s right for cities to say, ‘You know, there are certain places where it’s just not appropriate to camp.’””
“Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom recently announced the state had cleared 1,200 encampments in the past year, attempting to soften the message with a series of visits to social service programs. But without enough beds to shelter unhoused people, advocates say efforts to clear encampments are nothing more than cosmetic political stunts that essentially shuffle the problem from street corner to another.”
““No one’s happy to have to do this,” San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria said earlier this summer as he discussed ticketing people who refuse shelter. “We’re doing everything we can to provide people with better choices than the street.”
Other Democratic leaders around the country, facing similar pressure, have also moved to clear out encampments and push homeless people out of public spaces. New York City Mayor Eric Adams, a former police captain who won his office on a pledge to fight crime, came under fire this year for his removal of homeless people from subways and transit hubs. The city’s shelter system is now bursting at the seams.”
“A recent court decision requires local governments to provide enough beds before clearing encampments — a mandate that does not apply to state property. But that’s easier said than done in a state where there are three to four times as many homeless people as shelter beds.
California’s homelessness problem has deep, gnarled roots dating back decades, but has become increasingly pronounced in recent years. Tents and tarps on sidewalks, in parks and under freeways have become a near-ubiquitous symbol of the state’s enduring crisis. A pandemic-spurred project to move people from encampments to motels has lapsed, and eviction moratoriums have dissolved. Homelessness is a top concern for voters in the liberal state, and as Democrats prepare for the midterm elections, Newsom and other leaders have been eager to show voters they’re taking action.
But the practice of clearing out camps can be a futile exercise, particularly when the people being forced to pack up their tents have nowhere else to go or simply end up doing the same thing just a few blocks away.”
“Addiction and mental illness can drive people into homelessness and keep them there, which has fueled Newsom’s push for a civil court system that would create treatment plans for those with the most critical needs and allow involuntary commitment for people who do not participate. The CARE Courts program, which Newsom is expected to sign into law soon, is estimated to help between 7,000 and 12,000 people — a small portion of the more than 160,000 Californians without stable housing.”
“Homelessness is a major issue in the U.S., and is inherently intertwined with the cost of housing. In fact, in a recent poll, respondents from the 20 metro areas that experienced the largest population growth between 2010–2019 listed both the cost of housing and homelessness as their top two concerns, and by almost identical margins (86 and 87 percent, respectively). The average cost of rent has increased nearly 20 percent within the last year alone, and since 2001, in nearly every state, rents have risen at a faster rate than incomes.
But simply offering rental assistance without a simultaneous increase in the supply of housing would only serve to exacerbate the cost problem, as a larger amount of money would chase after the exact same amount of inventory. In fact, the U.S. is currently as many as 5 million houses short of meeting estimated demand.
Of the roughly $150 billion which the Build Back Better Act appropriates toward housing, more than half is put toward dubious use, via rental assistance programs. About a third of that portion, though, is specifically tailored toward the construction or rehabilitation of more affordable housing units to increase the overall supply, which could help drive down costs.”
“The Build Back Better Act does fund the establishment of a “competitive grant program,” the Unlocking Possibilities Program, to incentivize “streamlining regulatory requirements and shorten[ing] processes, [and] reform[ing] zoning codes.” As with any grant program, its efficacy will be dictated by its implementation, but with more than $4.26 billion appropriated, there is plenty of breathing room to potentially make a difference.
In an ideal scenario, of course, there would be as few zoning restrictions as possible, allowing developers to simply respond to the needs of the community without requiring the government’s stamp of approval. While public funding to incentivize a reduction or simplification of red tape is better than the status quo, it is still not a perfect solution.”
“More than 580,000 Americans are homeless. The median sale price for a home has just surpassed $400,000. Homeownership is on the decline.
This, by all accounts, is a national emergency — and one House Democrats had proposed $330 billion to tackle as part of their Build Back Better plan. This package was both a once-in-a-generation investment and also barely enough to scratch the surface. Now, even those proposed investments are being cut down as part of negotiations over the final package.”
“some in Congress were willing to make substantial investments, very few were willing to tackle the fundamental problem that was making homes so expensive in the first place: lack of supply.
Yes, it’s easier to try to help people afford something expensive than to try and make it less expensive to begin with. But many of the policies that try to subsidize housing can actually make it more expensive. “What you really need if you want to lower those new home prices, is you need to build more homes — and there’s not that much of that in this bill,” says Paul Williams, a fellow at the Jain Family Institute.”
“Five years after Los Angeles voters approved a $1.2 billion bond measure and a countywide sales tax hike to raise another estimated $355 million annually to solve its homelessness problem, there are more people living and dying on the streets than ever before.
Many of these men and women are both frequent targets and perpetrators of violence.
Mayor Eric Garcetti (D), who did not respond to our interview request, has partially blamed this failure on the pandemic, which slowed new housing construction and limited shelter capacity. It’s true that COVID caused a surge in homelessness, but the city’s plan was already failing.”
“The centerpiece of L.A.’s plan was to spend the $1.2 billion raised through Proposition HHH to build 10,000 supportive housing units over a decade. Even if the government were able to pull that off, it would merely put a dent in the problem in a city where more than 30,000 people are living on the streets and sidewalks according to the 2020 homelessness count.
Five years into the 10-year plan, just 14 projects are in service. Of the promised 10,000 supportive housing units, the city has completed fewer than 700.
It would take more than 30 years to house all of the people currently homeless in L.A. county at that pace, according to a federal court order.”