For nearly a year, city and county officials across the West have lamented a federal appeals court’s ruling last September barring municipalities from prosecuting homeless people for sleeping on the streets if there are no available shelter beds.
Now, Sacramento County and the city of Sacramento have joined the fight to overturn the ruling. They will share the impacts of the ruling on homelessness efforts in an amicus curiae, or “friend of the court,” brief to the U.S. Supreme Court later this month.
By submitting a brief in the case of Martin v. City of Boise, the county and city of Sacramento are answering a call to action from Boise, which argues that the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision has tied the hands of law enforcement and threatened public health and safety.
The appeals court announced earlier this year it would not reconsider its ruling.
“It was a blow,” said Sacramento County supervisor Sue Frost. “We had really set our sights on cleaning up the American River Parkway and doing everything we could to make sure what’s happening in Southern California didn’t happen to us,” referring to outbreaks there of hepatitis A over the last two years.
“Some of the most vulnerable homeless are even more vulnerable after this situation,” she said.
After the Boise decision, tickets for unlawful camping dropped dramatically across the cities and suburbs of Sacramento. On the American River Parkway, rangers shifted instead to increasing citations for other behaviors such as littering, tying ropes to trees and having a shopping cart, a move that some advocates said violates the spirit of the Boise decision.
With an issue as complex as homelessness, local governments need all the tools and information available to make informed choices about how to help people, said Theane Evangelis, lead counsel for the City of Boise.
“Right now the Ninth Circuit decision takes that debate off the table and makes it impossible for cities to come up with solutions,” Evangelis said.
In Sacramento County, homelessness continues to grow despite millions of federal, state and local money spent towards the cause. At least 5,570 people are homeless here, according to the most recent estimate this year, the highest ever recorded number living without permanent housing in Sacramento County.
A majority of homeless people reported living in the city of Sacramento, where since last December officials have been racing to increase its stock of homeless shelter beds to get hundreds under roofs. The locations for at least 300 new beds have since been announced.
“My view is rather than fighting the Boise decision, I would rather continue aggressively creating and building more beds so we can enforce the law under the Boise decision,” Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg said.
Still, the Sacramento city attorney Susana Alcala Wood confirmed Monday her office is helping draft amicus brief. The county board of supervisors announced the county would co-sign on a brief after a closed session meeting Aug. 20.
Sacramento civil rights attorney Mark Merin, who frequently represent homeless clients, said he isn’t surprised big cities would send an amicus brief supporting Boise, adding that, “It’s sad, but they don’t have a great record on how to deal with the homeless.”
“Cities can’t solve the homeless problem with criminalization, and that’s what Boise stands for,” Merin said. “You have to approach problems differently.”
Merin, who is also president of the nonprofit Safe Ground Sacramento, said cities and counties should prioritize building permanent affordable housing, and sanctioning encampments and car camps on public property — a model that is quickly gaining traction among city of Sacramento officials.
The amicus brief, drafted by the San Francisco-based Renee Public Law Group, will represent the perspectives of several other local governments hoping to overturn the Boise decision, as part of a group called the Coalition of California Local Entities.
The law firm has not released a statement on which cities have joined the coalition. An attorney for the group could not be immediately reached for comment.
Sacramento County will pay a maximum of $5,000 to the law firm, though the county has not been billed yet since the cost will lower as more cities are involved, county spokeswoman Kim Nava said.
The deadline for groups interested in sending amicus briefs to the Supreme Court for the case is Sept. 25.
Bee reporter Theresa Clift contributed to this report.