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The Legal Battle Over Homeless Camping


More than half a million people in this country do not have homes. It's a crisis. And you see it especially clearly along the West Coast. There are tent cities along sidewalks, parks and highway underpasses, and they are at the center of a huge legal fight. A federal appeals court has put limits on how far cities can go to enforce bans on camping. As NPR's Leila Fadel and Kirk Siegler report, this case could be headed to the Supreme Court.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Boise, Idaho, is maybe an unusual place to start this story. The homeless crisis is overwhelming the big cities on the West Coast, while Boise bills itself as one of the country's most livable cities, touting its good schools, its safe, leafy neighborhoods and access to the outdoors. Yet it's this prosperous, mid-sized city that's at the center of a divisive legal battle over whether people can sleep on public property. The case goes back nearly a decade to when Pam Hawkes (ph) and her then-partner were homeless here. She says many nights they had no other choice but to pitch a tent in a wooded area along the Boise River.

PAM HAWKES: I was like, I just need somewhere to lay my head overnight. And it's not like we left camp up. We always packed up, and we always kept it clean.

SIEGLER: Yet police routinely ticketed her for camping in public. I reached Hawkes in Spokane, Wash., where she's since moved. She was on a city bus on her way to a job interview.

HAWKES: It's kind of frustrating when they call it camping in public tickets, which then I feel it makes me seem like I'm right smack downtown. But in all reality, I was - tried my best at the time to stay out of view of the public eye.

SIEGLER: Hawkes and a half-dozen others in a similar predicament sued the city of Boise. And last year, they won. A federal appeals court ruled it's unconstitutional for cities to ticket people for sleeping in public if there are no shelter beds available. This is now the law of the Ninth Circuit that covers much of the West. Boise is appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court, but for now, from here to Seattle to cities in California, you can't just criminalize people like Hawkes for not having anywhere to sleep.

HOWARD BELODOFF: She got one on the 24. She got one on the 25.

SIEGLER: Boise civil rights attorney Howard Belodoff still keeps copies of the dozen public camping tickets Pam Hawkes got. She couldn't pay them, so she'd spend the night in jail. Belodoff represents the plaintiffs.

BELODOFF: The only way to deter a homeless person is to give them a place to live. That's the underlying problem.

SIEGLER: Even though the homeless population in Boise is much smaller than in big cities, the underlying tensions are the same. The cost of living here is soaring. Boise is now one of the nation's fastest growing cities, and there's an extraordinary affordable housing crisis. Homelessness was a deciding factor in an unusually heated mayoral race here this fall that ended up bitterly dividing two Democrats. The message that won was Lauren McLean's.


LAUREN MCLEAN: The part that is missed is all too often is the importance of prevention. If we want to prevent camps, we have to prevent homelessness. We've got to address the affordability crisis in this community.

SIEGLER: The losing candidate was the city's longest ever serving mayor, Dave Bieter. He took heat for spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to appeal the case. But Bieter argues Boise needs the ability to issue some tickets to stop the spread of encampments that he said have taken over West Coast cities like Seattle and Los Angeles, where my colleague Leila Fadel is.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Here on Skid Row in downtown LA, some 3,000 people sleep on the streets every night in the shadow of the financial district and luxury condos. Tents and makeshift homes made with tarps and cardboard line the streets. People camping on the sidewalks are shoving their belongings into plastic bags, shopping carts, backpacks or roller bags, pushing them out of the way before sanitation workers get to their block to fill garbage trucks and power wash the sidewalks. It's a city program to keep areas with homeless encampments like Skid Row, often referred to as the homeless capital of the nation, clean.

JUAN BROWN: Just another ploy to harass the homeless, making us move when we don't supposed to.

FADEL: That's Juan Brown (ph). He looks on, shaking his head. He's standing on the corner where he slept for three years before getting into housing last month. He got hit by a car, couldn't work. And so like 150 people every single day in Los Angeles County, he fell into homelessness.

BROWN: We're targeted because Los Angeles look at us like cockroaches instead of human beings. We're no longer human beings out here no more. Homeless people are cockroaches to society now.

MIKE FEUER: There need to be rules on the streets.

FADEL: That's LA City Attorney Mike Feuer. He says he's against criminalizing homelessness, but the Boise ruling is too broad. LA and dozens of other municipalities filed supporting briefs in the Boise case.

FEUER: I want the Supreme Court to issue clear rules that lead there to be certainty in jurisdictions like ours as to how we can regulate constitutionally conduct on our sidewalks.

FADEL: For example, he worries, will the city be burdened with nightly counts of the number of homeless people versus available shelter beds? He says the city has to balance the rights of homeless people with those of business owners and other residents. They complain about the growing number of tent cities, garbage, human feces and used needles. He says cities and states are working to build more shelters and affordable housing. But as that work is done, Los Angeles has to be able to police the streets.

FEUER: So that all our public spaces that are shared by everybody can be safe for everybody. And occasionally, that is going to require some level of enforcement.

FADEL: And he has questions about how LA can do that under this ruling. The crisis is visible outside Feuer's downtown office and back on Skid Row, where I meet General Dogon.

GENERAL DOGON: Conditions on Skid Row are worser than third-world country refugee camps.

FADEL: Dogon works with a local nonprofit called the Los Angeles Community Action Network. He says for years he's watched the city follow the same pattern - one ordinance after the next aimed at criminalizing being homeless instead of completing badly needed housing projects. The courts, tickets, confiscation of property are not solutions, he says, to stop the growing crisis.

DOGON: I tell people all the time, everybody ain't on drugs. And everybody ain't lost their minds. Seventy-one percent of the people is homeless in the city of Los Angeles because the rent is too damn high. That's it, and that's all.

FADEL: That's according to the latest county homelessness count. The numbers are up for debate and so is how to solve the problem. In the last year, homelessness jumped 16% in this city. And whatever the Supreme Court decides to do won't change that reality.

KING: That was NPR's Leila Fadel reporting from Los Angeles and NPR's Kirk Siegler in Boise. The Supreme Court could decide whether it will take up the Boise case as early as today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.