What the Supreme Court’s Homelessness Decision Means for San Diego

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What the Supreme Court’s Homelessness Decision Means for San Diego

Enforcement affecting homeless San Diegans is unlikely to change – at least for now – following the Supreme Court’s decision not to hear a case on how cities can police homelessness.

Tents line a sidewalk in East Village in 2015. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

This post originally appeared in the Dec. 17 Morning Report. Get the Morning Report delivered to your inbox.

Enforcement affecting homeless San Diegans is unlikely to change – at least for now – following the Supreme Court’s decision not to hear a case on how cities can police homelessness.

The Supreme Court announced Monday it would not take up the Martin v. Boise case following a ruling last year in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals barring western states including California from citing homeless people for sleeping on sidewalks if no other shelter is available.

Homeless advocates, including in San Diego, cheered the decision.

Cities including Los Angeles had filed briefs urging the Supreme Court to hear the case, arguing the ruling hampered cities’ ability to maintain public health and safety.

San Diego did not join the case but city leaders, including Mayor Kevin Faulconer, have long argued that enforcement can be necessary to balance the concerns of homeless San Diegans and residents.

Leslie Wolf Branscomb, a spokeswoman for City Attorney Mara Elliott, said the city believes its years-long practice of offering shelter beds to homeless San Diegans before issuing citations ensures it’s in compliance with the appeals court ruling.

“The Boise decision is consistent with the city’s policy of not enforcing illegal lodging laws against individuals sleeping on sidewalks between 9 p.m. and 5:30 a.m., unless the individual is offered a shelter bed and declines it,” Branscomb wrote in an email to VOSD.

Those offers followed a 2007 settlement requiring those offers in the wake of a lawsuit challenging the city’s enforcement of illegal lodging, a ban on settling somewhere without permission. The settlement prevents police from ticketing or arresting homeless San Diegans if shelters are full, a predicament police have said is rare.

But attorney Ann Menasche of Disability Rights California, who is representing homeless San Diegans who live in vehicles in an ongoing suit over crackdowns affecting people living in cars and RVs, said she thinks the decision could be a game-changer. She plans to cite the case in an ongoing federal court challenge to the city’s vehicle habitation and oversized vehicle ordinances. Her team’s next court hearing is in February.

“Access to shelter means it has to be truly accessible to people,” said Menasche, who noted there are many reasons shelters may not be able to accommodate all homeless San Diegans.

For example, Menasche said, a packed shelter can trigger people with post-traumatic stress disorder and a person living in a vehicle might be forced to abandon his most valuable possession if he enters one.

The city doesn’t have nearly enough enough shelter beds to accommodate all homeless San Diegans living on city streets, she said.

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