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Saturday, May 18, 2024

In Unusual Bipartisan Effort, Democrats and Republicans Pursue Legal Authority to Address Homeless Encampments

The waterways of Missoula, Montana are filthy and contaminated with trash and human waste. San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighbourhood is home to so many tents that its sidewalks have been dubbed “unofficial open-air public housing.” Campers in Portland, Oregon, tunnelled through a cinder block wall and ignited a bonfire to keep warm in March, causing a fire that shut down an on-ramp to the Steel Bridge for several days.

This week saw a flood of legal briefs from frustrated leaders across the political spectrum complaining that homeless encampments were turning public spaces into pits of squalor. They urged the Supreme Court to reconsider lower court decisions that they say have hampered their ability to bring these camps under control.

These urgent calls come as city and state governments around the country, and especially in the West, work to recover from the coronavirus outbreak and return to routine. More than two dozen papers from authorities in practically every Western state and beyond were filed in an appeal of a judgement on homeless policy in a town in southern Oregon. The officials depicted bleak images associated to the expansion of tent encampments in recent years.

They pleaded with the judges to help them clear the streets of squatters without violating previous judgements that have safeguarded the rights of the homeless.

Tent encampments, according to many who work for the rights of the homeless, are dangerous for both the homeless people who live there and the surrounding community. Others, however, have argued that the impending legal battle is an attempt to resort to tried-and-true government crackdowns rather than focusing on the glaringly obvious answers of more assistance and a larger supply of suitable homes.

There has been a nationwide increase in the burden of homelessness on state and municipal governments. One-third of America’s homeless population lives in California, where there are currently more than 170,000 homeless persons. A federal count of the homeless was undertaken last year, and it found that more than 115,000 Californians were sleeping on the streets, in automobiles, or otherwise outside where they were not welcome.

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held five years ago in a case out of Boise, Idaho, that towns cannot criminally prosecute homeless people at homeless camps and clear them unless they provide sufficient homes. Since then, the nine Western states within the circuit’s purview have together spent billions of dollars addressing homelessness.

However, few Western towns have enough shelter beds to accommodate all of the homeless in their areas, so authorities are hesitant to strictly enforce laws against people camping out in public. Over fifty different countries and international organisations have petitioned the Supreme Court this month to reverse the Ninth Circuit’s recent rulings.

In a recent petition, attorneys for the city of Grants Pass, Oregon, argue over whether or not they have the authority to issue tickets to persons who set up camp on public property including sidewalks, playgrounds, and parks. Until the Ninth Circuit ruled that municipal tickets were likewise prohibited in the absence of sufficient shelter beds, Grants Pass, unlike Boise, had issued civil citations rather than criminal charges.

Some West Coast towns saw a major increase in homeless encampments during the epidemic, which the public first seemed to tolerate. However, when life returns to normal, people’s patience wears out, and homelessness remains a top issue for voters.

But the cities claimed that many homeless people refused help — according to the Portland brief, 75% of some 3,400 offers of shelter were declined between May 2017 and July 2018 — and that the courts severely hampered their ability to force recalcitrant people out of tent camps and into supportive housing over the past five years.

Advocates for the homeless, such as Mr. Tars, have said that governments frequently exaggerate the quantity of indoor space they have to give, the breadth of their outreach, and the number of persons who decline refuge.

Jonathan James
Jonathan James
I serve as a Senior Executive Journalist of The National Era
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