What are the rights of homeless persons?
A divided Board of Supervisors voted this week to support an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court of a court case questioning if cities and counties can legally enforce outdoor camping restrictions in an effort to clear homeless encampments, and is joining an Oregon city’s call for action.
Supervisors Kathryn Barger and Janice Hahn introduced the motion calling on the county to support the city of Grants Pass, Oregon, in its appeal to the Supreme Court of two 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rulings that struck down cities’ ability to enforce public camping restrictions against the homeless unless there is adequate alternative shelter space available.
“I want to be clear that this is not an advocacy push for the criminalization of homelessness, but rather a call for comprehensive, compassionate action,” Barger said in a statement after the board’s 3-2 vote in support of the appeal. “This motion encourages the Supreme Court to clarify our state and local governments’ ability to protect and support the rights of our housed and unhoused constituents alike.
“If local governments are restricted from regulating the presence of encampments on public property, we are left powerless when trying to effectively address our worsening homelessness crisis. This motion advocates for a balanced solution that urges cities to help people access services, shelter, and support while also protecting the broader community from the public health and safety issues that stem from encampments.”
Hahn added that interpretations of the appeals court rulings “have tied the hands of cities and counties in imposing common-sense time and place restrictions on some key public spaces to keep people safe and move those who want assistance into shelter. We have no interest in or intention to criminalize homelessness. We simply need the clarification about what tools we have to address this crisis and keep people safe.”
Critics of local anti-camping laws have criticized them as a criminalization of people who are involuntarily homeless–citing people for camping outdoors when there are no alternative places for them to stay. Multiple homeless advocates urged the Board of Supervisors not to get involved in the Grants Pass litigation, saying it should instead be prioritizing efforts to provide shelter and other resources to guide people out of homelessness.
“We all agree that the status quo is unacceptable,” Jennifer Hark Dietz, CEO of People Assisting the Homeless, said in a statement ahead of the board vote. “Living outside is not safe–the weather is proving that as we speak. Fortunately, Los Angeles is leading on the clear and proven strategy to permanently resolve these dangerous conditions through the Pathway Home and Inside Safe initiatives. Instead of signing onto a court case that runs counter to the county’s success, we ask that the Board of Supervisors demonstrate to the nation that L.A. County already has the clarity and commitment to solve homelessness.”
Supervisors Hilda Solis and Lindsey Horvath both opposed the motion. It passed when Supervisor Holly Mitchell agreed to vote in favor–but only after she added an amendment clearly stating that the county does not support the criminalization of homelessness.