In a decision that homeless-rights advocates said could have ripple effects up and down the West Coast, a federal appeals court has ruled that cities cannot prosecute people for sleeping outside if they have no other reasonable place to be.
The decision by a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals three-judge panel stems from a 2009 case in which six homeless people sued the city of Boise, Idaho, because of a local ordinance that prohibited sleeping in public areas. The three homeless shelters in the city had a limited number of beds, sometimes restricted who could use them and, in some cases, required religious participation.
The court ruled last week that as long as there are more homeless people in a city than available shelter beds, officials cannot prosecute those individuals for essentially living in public.
To do so would violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, the court said.
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Bellingham’s ordinance that prohibits people from sitting or lying on public sidewalks during the hours of 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. in both the downtown and Fairhaven areas, and city attorney Peter Ruffato said police would continue to enforce it.
But the court ruling likely wouldn’t affect Bellingham’s ordinance because it’s not a citywide ban, he said.
City officials have focused on connecting people with resources like the Homeless Outreach Team run by the Opportunity Council’s Whatcom Homeless Service Center, Ruffato said.
Mike Parker, director of the service center, said before the Bellingham ordinance takes effect each morning, team members wake those found sleeping, greet them with a cup of coffee and ask if they need services during the day.
He said any changes in local law could affect when the team reaches out to people.
“We certainly take changes (in local laws) into account because we know it affects folks, and as much as possible we try to be helpful. It affects our context and certainly affects the people we work with,” Parker said.
“These are people who have no place to go and we certainly have that struggle. We just don’t have enough options for everybody and it’s really challenging.”
According to the county’s 2016 annual report on homelessness, approximately 30 percent of Whatcom County’s homeless population of more than 700 stayed outside, and 25 percent used an emergency shelter.
Having a policy that forces people to move off public sidewalks could be detrimental if they have no other place to go, said Hans Erchinger-Davis. He’s executive director of Lighthouse Mission Ministries, which operates the only emergency overnight shelter in Bellingham.
“I don’t want to have homelessness swept under the rug so people just don’t see it, when the reality is people are still suffering greatly. I hope that as people see the challenges of chronic homelessness, their hearts are pricked to do something about it,” Erchinger-Davis said.
“If we’re working hard to not see it and not feel bad about the reality in front of us, then the issue never really gets addressed.”
Homeless-rights advocates called the federal court ruling a landmark one. And it could have consequences for other cities in the region with limited shelter beds and strict ordinances on living in public.
“I think we are going to see more cases like this,” said Ann LoGerfo, a directing attorney at Columbia Legal Services in Seattle.
“This is a first step in informing cities that they really need to look to essential human rights embodied in the Constitution when crafting laws or enforcing laws involving those who are living without shelter.”
“This case will have a significant impact on the almost 80 percent of cities in Washington” that prohibit lying or sleeping in public spaces, LoGerfo said.