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Friday, March 1, 2024
March 1, 2024

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In Our View: Cities must have power to protect public spaces

The Columbian

Many local residents likely can recite the myriad factors that have contributed to an increase in homelessness in our community and elsewhere. Substance abuse, mental health issues and a lack of affordable housing and shelters are just some of the commonly cited reasons. And when the discussion turns political, some people will blame local governments for not doing enough while others will claim that wealth inequity contributes to the problem.

But one aspect that is little understood is how a 2018 court ruling has limited the ability of governments to remove encampments of unhoused people.

In Martin v. Boise, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that cities may not enforce anti-camping ordinances if there are not enough shelter beds in the area. The ruling applies to the nine states in the 9th Circuit jurisdiction, including Washington. The decision was based on the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment in the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“As long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter,” read the ruling, in part.

In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal in the case, leaving the ruling intact. In its appeal to the court, the city of Boise argued, “the creation of a de facto constitutional right to live on sidewalks and in parks will cripple the ability of more than 1,600 municipalities in the Ninth Circuit to maintain the health and safety of their communities.”

That situation came to mind last week with reports that the Clark County Council and the La Center City Council are considering restrictions on people camping on public property. Neither jurisdiction has ordinances banning camping, although both have restrictions against overnight parking and against camping in parks.

“I think it’s pretty clear to most people that this is good, not just for the public but the people camping,” Clark County Chair Karen Bowerman said.

Most local residents would agree with that. Widespread encampments are a danger to public health and the economy, diminishing the quality of life throughout our community. But municipal governments face difficult questions in establishing and enforcing a ban.

Most prominent among those questions is: Where should unhoused people go? It is one thing to suggest that those living in tents on public property should be displaced. It is another to leave them with no alternatives.

Another pressing question involves the liability faced by municipalities. In 2021, Boise reached a $1.3 million settlement in the Martin case, which had began with a lawsuit in 2009.

Despite those questions, city and county governments should have broad power to protect their residents and their public spaces. If a situation — such as people living in tents along a public right-of-way — is detrimental to the well-being of a community, the local government should be able to address the problem.

That is the argument put forth by multiple cities along the West Coast, who have asked the Supreme Court to reconsider the Boise case and a similar ruling in a case out of Grants Pass, Ore.

The rights of unhoused people must be protected; simply telling them to go elsewhere is not a viable solution. But the hope is that officials in Clark County and La Center can devise proposals that balance those rights with the needs of their communities.