Jessica Cejnar / Thursday, Sept. 19 @ 6:21 p.m. / Community, Homelessness, Local Government
City, County Supports Effort To Get Martin V. Boise Appeals Court Ruling Before Supreme Court
City and county elected officials decided to back the City of Boise as it seeks to get the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling governing sleeping on public property.
The Crescent City Council voted unanimously at a last-minute special meeting Wednesday to join a coalition of other California jurisdictions in sponsoring an amicus brief in support of Boise’s petition to the Supreme Court. In an earlier special meeting Wednesday, the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to sponsor the amicus brief.
The sponsorship comes at the request of Bay Area-based Renne Public Law Group, which is asking local government agencies to pledge an amount “not to exceed $5,000” in support of the amicus brief. District 4 Supervisor Gerry Hemmingsen dissented, saying that $5,000 is a lot of money for Del Norte County. He noted that other jurisdictions have signed on to the amicus brief, including Sacramento County, which has a larger budget.
“I think this is going forward. I think it’s important that it goes forward,” Hemmingsen said. “I think that for our county to have to pay this kind of money, just to be listed or named on it… I can’t support taking this out of our general fund when I’m sure this is going forward regardless of whether we enter into this or not.”
In September 2018, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Martin v. the City of Boise that enforcing a statute prohibiting homeless individuals from sleeping on public property when no alternative shelter was available violated the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. The Court of Appeals held that as long as the option of sleeping indoors isn’t available, local government can’t criminalize the homeless from sleeping outdoors on public property.
On Wednesday, City Attorney Martha Rice told Councilors that Renne Public Law Group’s amicus brief supporting Boise’s petition to the U.S. Supreme Court is one of two steps. The Supreme Court has to agree to hear Boise’s case against the Martin v. Boise ruling before hearing an argument on its merits, Rice said.
After speaking with a representative of Renne Public Law Group, Rice said, the firm was asking interested entities to inform them by 5 p.m. Wednesday they wanted to sign on to the amicus brief, but could extend the deadline to noon Thursday.
“That left us short of 48 hours, around 36 hours, to get a meeting together so you could consider joining,” she said. “Any entity joining the coalition is asked to contribute up to a maximum of $5,000.”
According to Rice, the Renne law group representative said they had enough agencies signed on to the amicus brief that they would only have to pony up a maximum of about $3,000.
“They’re not anticipating that it would take the full $5,000,” she said.
Both the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors and Crescent City Council stated they were seeking clarity on the 9th Circuit ruling by supporting Boise’s efforts to get the Supreme Court to weigh in on the issue. They argued that the decision left their hands tied as to how to respond to residents’ complaints while meeting the needs of those who have no shelter.
District 1 Supervisor Roger Gitlin, who has argued for the need to set up a “staging area” where the homeless can sleep, said the Appeals Court’s ruling created confusion about what law enforcement can and can’t do with “collateral behavior that no one in this room could condone.” This includes drug use and the finding of used needles on public property, Gitlin said.
Whether the Supreme Court agrees to hear Boise’s appeal or not, Gitlin argued, doesn’t change the need to find a suitable place to provide services to those who are homeless.
“But, according to the court, we have to have enough beds to match our point in time count, which at this point is somewhere between 400 and 600 people who are without shelter,” he said. “We simply cannot do that. We can provide some shelter, but to go back to 600, we wouldn’t be able to afford it.”
According to the Shasta County Community Action Agency, which prepared the Northern California region’s 2019 Point in Time Count, 184 people in Del Norte County identified as homeless.
Board of Supervisors chairwoman Lori Cowan noted Gitlin’s error with regard to the Point in Time Count, but agreed that having the Supreme Court weigh in on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling would provide much-needed clarity.
“I wanted to make sure we’re not criminalizing the homeless, ‘cause that is not our goal,” she said. “It’s to understand and have control back (on) what is best for Del Norte County. What works in Sacramento or what works in Boise or what works somewhere else isn’t necessarily what works for us.”
When Crescent City Council discussed the issue, Councilor Heidi Kime agreed that the city’s hands have been tied when it comes to maintaining their public lands for everyone’s enjoyment.
“I don’t feel that this community has done everything it’s going to do in order to solve the homeless crisis, but I also don’t appreciate having something in another state telling us what we are going to do here in California,” she said. “I do believe it needs to go to the highest court, and I support this. I feel like sharing the burden with 25-30 other cities and counties and sharing that burden and lowering our cost is a good thing.”
Crescent City Mayor Blake Inscore said though he doesn’t want to put the community in a position of violating the law, the $3,000-$5,000 is a small price compared to potentially getting sued. He noted, however, that even if Crescent City supports Boise’s efforts to get the ruling before the Supreme Court, it doesn’t mean the tents that have been at Beachfront Park off and on since then will go away.
“I’m as frustrated as anybody else,” Inscore said. “We’re not going to have a final decision tomorrow. This teams us up with other cities who are trying to answer this as well.”
Crescent City resident Kevin Bingham, who proposed addressing the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling by using Army tents to house those who don’t have shelter, said there’s no harm joining the amicus brief. He noted that the ruling affects the entire West Coast.
“We’re smart as a city and a county to try to at least put our foot in the door,” Bingham said. “The Supreme Court will hear our name… it’s going to feel more personal to them. They’re going to know these are actual people that are actually be affected.”
Local homelessness advocate Mike Thornton, however, noted that the Martin v. Boise ruling does provide clear parameters on what local jurisdictions can and can’t allow on public property. It doesn’t condone hypodermic drug use, public urination or defication, Thornton said, but it does mean that law enforcement can’t push them to a place where they’re not seen.
Thornton said he participated in this year’s Point in Time Count and was told by Jesse Ferguson, of the Del Norte Department of Health and Human Services, that many homeless are long-term Del Norte residents.
“What Martin v. Boise did was take a problem that everyone knew existed and gave it a venue and a vehicle for it to come out of the shadows and actually be seen,” Thornton said. “It seems to me the real effort should be how do we address these issues instead of focusing on how we can get these people back out of sight because some people don’t want to see them.”
Tony Barnes, owner of property management firm, TAB & Associates, thanked the City Council for considering supporting the City of Boise.
“This is a very important case we’re up against. It has national attention. We all know that,” he said. “We all know the problems it presents us. You guys have a tough job.”
Patricia Black, a member of True North Organizing Network, said she was shocked no one spoke of the amicus brief at the Crescent City Council’s regular meeting Monday. If there were enough notice, she said, more people would have had a chance to provide input.
Black said she was bothered by people painting those who don’t have a roof over their heads as undesirable. Most are wonderful people, she said, and even those that aren’t have needs that should be met.
“What the real need is here is not to chase people off public land,” she said. “The real need is to provide places so people don’t have to live on public land and I’m not just talking about a shelter overnight. I’m talking about a place where people can live with some kind of dignity.”
Black noted that people are looking for housing when there isn’t any available. Seeking clarification on the 9th Circuit ruling makes sense, she said.
“If we’re saying we want to get rid of the ruling we’re sending another message about the kind of people we are and the kind of community we have,” Black said.