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Supreme Court decision protects right of homeless to camp in public places if nowhere else to go

Homeless advocates Monday applauded a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to let stand a lower court ruling protecting the right of homeless individuals to sleep on sidewalks, public trails or in public parks if alternative shelter isn't available for them.

That landmark ruling said that imposing criminal sanctions on people sleeping outdoors in a public space, when they have nowhere else to go violates the Constitution's Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Issued last year by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, the Martin v. Boise ruling is now the law of the land for California and eight other western states in the court's jurisdiction because the nation's top court declined to review the case.

The Supreme Court's decision comes as Sonoma County and many other parts of California are struggling to contend with growing homeless populations who are setting up camps in parks, downtown squares and other public places.

But even as Sonoma County supervisors on Tuesday prepare to begin hearing and assessing options they hope might help clear the homeless encampment along the Joe Rodota Trail of the 200 or more people who have camped there over recent months, local officials said they don't expect to be handicapped by the Supreme Court's action - or lack thereof. The emergency measures supervisors will consider include the possibility of providing short-term indoor and outdoor shelters at Sonoma County Fairgrounds for homeless camping on the trail and elsewhere.

A legal settlement reached last summer that's even more stringent and specific than the closely watched lawsuit that originated a decade ago when six homeless people sued the City of Boise already governs how they deal with homeless encampments here.

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, through whose district the Rodota trail runs, has described the settlement as a “codification of humanity.” The encampment on the trail between Santa Rosa and Sebastopol is considered by many to be the largest homeless camp ever seen in Santa Rosa.

Homeless advocates nonetheless hailed the high court's decision as strengthening the legal framework for protecting people experiencing homelessness.

“It's a great victory for the rights of homeless, who have been trampled on for a really long time,” said Kathleen Finigan, a spokeswoman for Homeless Action in Sonoma County, “and it really fortifies the universal declaration on human rights, which guarantees a right to a home for all people.”

The high court's refusal to review the Boise case affirms the notion that bans on public camping unconstitutionally criminalize homelessness, advocates said.

It also upholds the arguments behind a local federal case that led to the settlement under which Sonoma County and Santa Rosa now must operate.

Filed in 2018 by several homeless individuals and their supporters in public interest group called Homeless Action, the lawsuit sought to prevent the dislocation of a large, long-term encampment in Roseland after a series of other, nearby camp sweeps in the Santa Rosa area in late 2017 and in 2018.

The settlement reached last summer is the result of the federal case between the county and the city and the plaintiffs: Homeless Action and three one-time residents of Camp Michela, previously located behind the Dollar Tree on Sebastopol Road, near the Rodota trail. At least one of the plaintiffs, Nicholle Vannucci, has been recently camping on the Rodota trail.

The settlement requires that homeless people moved from public areas be offered adequate, alternative shelter, depending on their individual circumstances - whether related to disability, sexual orientation, family status, possession of a service animal or pet, mental or emotional health. Approved by U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chhabria for the Northern District of California, the settlement specifically notes that barracks-style placement like Sam Jones Hall, the region's largest shelter, with 200 beds, doesn't work for everyone.

“You're not just throwing them into Sam Jones (shelter), where we know it's going to be a failure for some people,” said Alicia Roman, one of the lawyers on that case.

“We're excited” by the Supreme Court decision, she said, “because it confirms that the Boise case is correct and the police, the city, our government can't move someone unless and until an adequate space has been offered, and that hopefully will happen.”

Furthermore, the agreement requires: that the shelter space be available immediately and for at least 30 consecutive days; that the person be able to travel there free; that it be open day and night; that it offer a true bed, not a mat on the floor; and that the client be able to reside there with a spouse, partner, children, parents or caregiver.

People also must be notified in advance, in writing, of any enforcement action to be taken, and must be assessed by properly trained outreach workers.

Provisions also must be made to store people's belongings so they can retrieve them later.

The agreement in the Homeless Action case was to last only until June 2020, or until the end of the U.S. Supreme Court term, giving it time to consider the Boise case. The parties in the local case will have to meet next year to decide what comes next.

Santa Rosa Mayor Tom Schwedhelm said that the current settlement was reached through negotiation, because it's what the city wanted.

“We're not being forced into this,” he said. “We voluntarily signed onto this agreement because, quite frankly, I think it's the way we should deal with an encampment.”

Hopkins, who serves on the Home Sonoma County Leadership Council chaired by Schwedhelm, said both of them hope to advance a countywide protocol for working with homeless encampments based on one the city has drafted. Finigan said she's hopeful that having the Boise legal matter resolved with the Supreme Court Monday declining to review it will hasten action on shelter and housing for those who have none.

“We're not seeing people being housed because there are not houses to house them in,” the Homeless Action spokeswoman said. “So we want a safe haven where they'll be safe, have security, have hygiene and case management, a place they can be without having to be hypervigilent that they're going to be evicted at any moment.

“They can never rest easy,” she said.

Editor's note: In an earlier version of this story, the name of the spokeswoman for Homeless Action in Sonoma County, Kathleen Finigan, was misspelled.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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