By the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin and the Seattle Times
The U.S. Supreme Court decision to not hear a landmark case on homelessness and camping bans will not affect Walla Walla. The court announced Monday, they will leave in place a lower court’s decision that cities can’t enforce laws against homeless people sleeping in public places if they have nowhere else to go.
The decision is a blow to some Washington law enforcement and elected officials who hoped the Supreme Court would reverse the previous ruling, but homeless advocates lauded the outcome.
The case, Martin v. Boise, has caused an upheaval in the way West Coast cities deal with homelessness. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2018 that if a city doesn’t have enough shelter beds available, enforcing a camping ban like Boise’s — which makes camping or sleeping anywhere in Boise city limits illegal — violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Cities from Alaska to Arizona had to stop enforcing their anti-camping laws while they evaluated what they could legally enforce.
The Supreme Court’s decision to let the ruling stand in Martin v. Boise has no effect on Walla Walla.
Walla Walla provides a supervised designated camping area for homeless persons at the corner of West Rees Avenue and 15th Avenue, commonly referred to as the sleep center.
“The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to let stand the Martin v. Boise decision is affirming of Walla Walla’s choice to avoid treating homelessness as a crime,” said Chuck Hindman a chairman for Walla Walla Alliance for the Homelessness.
Leaders from more than 20 communities have visited the sleep center to see what we are doing, he said.
“While other communities have focused on eliminating encampments, which soon pop up in another location, Walla Walla has focused on providing legal, safe shelter and moving people from homeless to housed,” Hindman said.
The city’s anti-camping ordinance allows persons to camp only at a city designated camping area (sleep center), said City Attorney Tim Donaldson. “It is unlawful to camp at any time on any other public property or in any park, planting strip, traffic median or island or on any street, roadway, multi-use path, or trail.”
If the designated camping area is full and other shelter is unavailable, a person may camp on a city sidewalk during designated times, he said.
The sleep center shelters 40 to 50 adults per night and if it did not exist, the city would just be moving folks from one encampment to another, which makes exiting homelessness even more difficult, Hindman said.
“Almost every night, our volunteers call dispatch with the news that we are not completely full. As a result, the city and the county can legally enforce their no camping ordinances,” he said.
Violations of the ordinance would be a misdemeanor, said Sgt. Eric Knudson.
“We do respond to illegal camping calls,” Knudson said.
Two pending cases for violation of the city’s anti-camping ordinance are active.
“My office hopes to work with the defendants in those cases not only to achieve compliance with the city’s anti-camping ordinance but also to connect those persons with available services in hopes of them finding suitable housing,” Donaldson said.
Spokane enforces a “sit-lie” ordinance that cites people who sit, sleep or lie on Spokane streets, but only when appropriate shelter space is available. That can change on any given night as the city deals with a shelter bed shortage, said Spokane City Councilmember Breean Beggs.
The ruling prevented Spokane from citing people who could be connected to services through the criminal-justice system, the brief argued.
The brief filed in late September urging the Supreme Court to review the 9th Circuit’s decision, lawyers representing cities across the country, government lawyers and Washington law enforcement argued that the cities of Spokane, Spokane Valley and Olympia were prevented from protecting the public under the Boise ruling.
Spokane’s Mayor-elect Nadine Woodward told The Seattle Times shortly after her electoral victory in November that she wanted to see how the Boise case was resolved before spending money on more permanent shelter space.
But Beggs, who will become the council’s president in the new year, disagreed with the brief’s argument — the city’s pre-existing laws had already adopted the Boise ruling’s stance by including a caveat about shelter space, he said. The Supreme Court’s position won’t affect Spokane, he said, but could have major ramifications for its neighbors.
“The actual decision wouldn’t have changed that one way or another in Spokane, but what the Martin decision does really has a big impact on our surrounding areas,” he said.
Spokane Valley, a city that borders Spokane to the east and doesn’t have a homeless shelter within its borders, passed new regulations in November that restrict public camping unless there’s shelter available in the region as a whole. Unlike Spokane, however, the city took the additional step of permanently barring camping at City Hall and two local parks, regardless of whether there was shelter space.
Spokane Valley deputy city attorney Erik Lamb explained in a November council meeting that campers could still go to other public parks where the city could not enforce the ordinance if shelter space wasn’t available.
In Olympia, city leaders halted a large-scale downtown sweep the day the ruling came down last year. The city resumed the camp removals after opening a large, sanctioned camp downtown, offering people shelters or spots in the sanctioned site.
In Aberdeen, the city cleared out an infamous river camp this year and has moved many of its campers to a sanctioned area behind City Hall. But Aberdeen Mayor Erik Larson said that because Martin v. Boise isn’t a very specific ruling, it can be hard for his small town, with only two lawyers on staff, to make sure they’re running the camp in a way that won’t invite a lawsuit.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I can definitely say the Supreme Court not taking this up is really going to extend the amount of time we’re dealing with this untenable situation,” Larson said.
Tars, one of the lawyers arguing against Boise’s defense, said he’s hopeful there will be an opportunity to settle with the city of Boise.
“The bottom line is cities should be looking at this not as a limitation on what they can do, but an opportunity to finally do the right thing,” Tars said. “Get people into housing. They shouldn’t be looking for constitutional loopholes to do the bare minimum here and continue criminalizing homelessness by some other name.”