The Court Decision preventing cities from moving homeless encampments

by Zain Jaffer

A lot of news reports have covered the increase in homeless encampments in major US cities, particularly in the Western United States. One identifiable factor responsible for its growth is a 2018 federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling called Martin vs. Boise.

According to a June 2023 Vox article, unsheltered homeless people now account for 40 percent of all homeless people in the country, up from 31 percent in 2015.

In 2009, Robert Martin and a group of fellow homeless residents in Boise, Idaho, argued that the local camping citations they received violated their constitutional rights. In 2018, the Ninth Circuit agreed that the ban on sleeping or camping on public property of people who have no home or shelter went against the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. “The government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter,” the court said.

Martin vs. Boise basically says that unless cities have ready shelters for the homeless, these people cannot be evicted from their encampments. Initially the scope of the Ninth Circuit ruling was only in states that it covered, but more recently it has been cited in homeless cases in states like Ohio, Missouri, Florida, Texas, New York, and Hawaii.

It is important to note that homelessness has always been there even before the ruling. However Martin vs. Boise gave people in homeless encampments the right to fight against their eviction. Normally cities will agree to house people if they agree to undergo drug detoxification if they are addicted to illegal substances, but this ruling gives the homeless the right to contest that. Some of them, not all, simply don’t want to undergo detoxification and clean up their lives.

Of course not everyone who is homeless is addicted. Some of them are simply there because they were thrown out of their homes, rental apartments, or were foreclosed from their homes. Definitely these people need help.

The Fed rate hikes are actually exacerbating the problem. Pre Fed rate hike mortgages that averaged at 3% annually were affordable enough for many Americans to prevent a high number of defaults. Right now however, with mortgage rates averaging 7.5% annually, more buyers are expected to default on their mortgages, especially with aggressive marketing techniques like one percent downpayments to people who may actually not be able to afford to buy a house long term.

Cities and states have been trying to overturn this decision to no avail so far. An 2019 attempt to elevate it to the US Supreme Court was declined.

While acknowledging that the homeless need help, giving them the right to simply encamp wherever they want is a lose lose situation. Right now cities are spending a lot on their homeless programs, and getting into these programs will help people who need help clean up and restart productive lives. Allowing them an excuse to stay on the streets simply delays their potential recovery, or dooms it forever.

For the cities involved, real estate values plummet downtown. The dangerous and unsightly environment in these encampments threatens businesses, workers, individuals, and families and convinces some businesses and companies to move elsewhere. Instead of attracting investments and tax revenues, the affected cities lose those.

For the sake of America’s cities, and for the homeless themselves, the US court system should repeal Martin vs. Boise. The homeless do not have a right to stay in encampments for long periods. Arguing that they have the right to do so simply prevents them from recovering and reentering American society as productive citizens.