David Langness: Sleeping while homeless no longer a crime
If you met Pamela Hawkes today, a petite 36-year-old woman with long red hair and kind brown eyes, you might not think of her as a homeless American whose case went to the Supreme Court.
Today Pamela lives in Spokane, Washington, has a home and a job. But in 2005, she and her boyfriend had moved to Boise, Idaho to find work. Instead, they became homeless, and the Boise police arrested them 12 times for violating the city’s “anti-camping” ordinance, which made it a misdemeanor to use “any of the streets, sidewalks, parks, or public places as a camping place at any time.”
During Boise’s cold winter nights, Pamela tried to find a bed at one of the three homeless shelters in town, but they were all full — so she and many other people went to jail for sleeping while homeless.
A controversial legal case resulted, and the final ruling became a settled part of American law on Monday, Dec. 16, when the Supreme Court let a lower court decision stand. That case has significant ramifications for Nevada County — and for every place in the United States where people cannot afford a home.
Pamela’s case began when pro bono attorneys in Boise filed suit against the city for jailing homeless people who slept in public places. Their case, called Martin, et. al vs. City of Boise went to trial, with Pamela Hawkes as one of the six homeless plaintiffs. In its 2017 decision in the case, now affirmed because the Supreme Court let its original order stand, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled:
“We consider whether the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment bars a city from prosecuting people criminally for sleeping outside on public property when those people have no home or other shelter to go to. We conclude that it does.”
Writing for the majority, Judge Marsha Berzon said “As long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.”
In other words, no city can arrest and punish people for the crime of sleeping while homeless — unless they provide alternative shelter.
The moral of this story says something deeper and more important: that we have a responsibility to take care of our own fellow citizens. This profoundly American value, forged in the very first stirrings of our union in the 18th century, prizes loyalty, kinship with our neighbors and a shared understanding of our moral duty to support and help each other.
Every California city and town struggles with the issue of homelessness today. Los Angeles and San Francisco have thousands of residents without a residence. But just about every small city and town hosts its own homeless population, too. Mostly, those people are us. They grew up here. They have friends and relatives here. They live here, but rising home prices and a minimum-wage job market mean they can no longer afford even the smallest room or apartment.
Why do we have so many homeless people? No shortage of speculative answers exists — many blame drugs, alcohol, mental illness, PTSD or simple laziness.
But don’t we all know people with those problems who still have a roof over their heads?
Some even believe the absurd myth that big cities somehow bus their homeless people to places like Nevada County. But in the reality-based world, one stark fact explains the primary root cause of homelessness: the rising cost of housing.
To prove it, just Google these two graphs and compare them: the historic increase of homelessness in California over the past four decades; and the upsurge in home prices and rents during the same time period.
Those graphs mirror each other, rising at exactly the same parallel rate.
Many of us have profited handsomely from the decades-long, meteoric rise in California real estate – but it has also severely disadvantaged the poorest in our society, good people like Pamela Hawkes, literally throwing them onto the streets and into the forests.
If you’re one of those who have done well in California’s boom, perhaps you might want to think about sharing some of those gains with the nonprofit agencies serving our homeless neighbors.
David Langness is a writer, one of the co-founders in 1985 of Homeless Health Care Los Angeles, and now serves on the board of directors of Hospitality House.
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“You’ve heard me say this before: Every acre can and will burn someday in this state” — Cal Fire Director Thom Porter.