‘Ill-defined and unworkable’: Sacramento urges Supreme Court to review homeless ruling

Issues facing the city and county of Sacramento punctuate a scathing assessment submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday on the state of homelessness in California following a landmark federal appeals court ruling last year.

In a 36-page amicus curiae, or “friend of the court,” brief, the California State Association of Counties and 33 local governments have asked the nation’s highest court to consider hearing an appeal of the Martin v. City of Boise case. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last September that municipalities cannot punish people for sleeping on the streets if there are no available shelter beds.

The brief argues that the Boise decision is “ill-defined and unworkable,” threatening to derail local and regional efforts to end homelessness, and preventing law enforcement officials from ensuring the public health and safety of communities.

“The Ninth Circuit’s opinion is unworkable from a practical standpoint, exposes municipalities to endless and costly litigation over its meaning with little room for error, and casts constitutional doubt on a host of long-established public health and safety laws,” the brief stated.

Moreover, the ruling “creates more questions than it answers” for those trying to comply, according to the brief, such as how can police know in real time how many shelter beds are available, and what defines a “practically available” shelter bed.

“What if beds are available but the shelter cannot accommodate a large amount of personal possessions or the individual’s partner, spouse, or other adult relative?” the brief stated. “What if beds are available nearby in a neighboring city?”

For example, the brief cites the San Juan Motel site in Sacramento, off Stockton Boulevard, where sheriff’s deputies cleared more than 65 people from a homeless encampment in a publicly owed lot in May.

“What is the appropriate jurisdiction for purposes of counting homeless individuals and shelter beds? Is it the city where the land is located? The entire county? Or just the small portion of land on which the encampment existed?” the brief stated.

Sacramento County was later hit with a federal civil rights lawsuit stemming from the Stockton Boulevard encampment clearing. The suit alleged that “despite acknowledging that unsheltered people have nowhere to be during the day and night,” the county and the Sheriff’s Office “persist in criminalizing those who must sleep and rest on public land in violation of Martin v. City of Boise.”

Similar lawsuits, which have already been filed against several California cities and counties, will only become more frequent, forcing municipalities to spend public resources “litigating the decision’s contours,” the brief stated.

The brief also makes the case that the ruling puts people at risk because it prohibits local government from removing encampments from flood-prone areas such as along the American River in Sacramento, where hundreds of homeless people live in tents and makeshift shelters.

“A rapid and unprecedented increase in encampments along the American River in Sacramento has impeded officials’ ability to monitor, inspect, maintain, rebuild, repair and operate the levee system, increasing the flood risk to those living in the encampments and others throughout the city,” the brief stated.

The number of homeless people reported in Sacramento County has more than doubled since 2013, to about 5,570. Most of Sacramento’s homeless population is in the city of Sacramento, but has spread to the suburbs in recent years. Nearly half of all unsheltered homeless people in the United States live in California.

Represented by San Francisco-based law firm Renne Public Law Group, the counties of Los Angeles, San Diego, Fresno, Orange, Sutter, Riverside, San Joaquin and Del Norte have also signed on to the brief. Lodi, Manteca and Fairfield, among other cities, are also included.

Homeless activists and advocates have raised concerns about efforts to challenge the Boise decision. Sacramento civil rights attorney Mark Merin previously told The Sacramento Bee that “cities can’t solve the homeless problem with criminalization, and that’s what Boise stands for.”

The Supreme Court is expected to decide whether to hear the case by 2020.

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Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks covers Sacramento County and the cities and suburbs beyond the capital. She’s previously worked at The New York Times and NPR, and is a former Bee intern. She graduated from UC Berkeley, where she was the managing editor of The Daily Californian.
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Theresa Clift covers Sacramento City Hall. Before joining The Bee in 2018, she worked as a local government reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Daily Press in Virginia and the Wausau Daily Herald in Wisconsin. She grew up in Michigan and graduated from Central Michigan University.