A federal court is cracking down on laws meant to deter homeless camping just a month after Kennewick adopted a similar rule.
Washington cities have been advised to review laws that limit where homeless people can camp in light of a recent ruling from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in a Boise, Idaho, case.
In a case brought by six homeless Boise residents, a panel of three judges ruled the city violated the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment by enforcing rules when no alternative shelter was available.
The city’s law essentially criminalized the act of being without a home, said the ruling.
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In August, the city council adopted the law to address the increasingly visible presence of homeless people camping in public rights of way.
The Municipal Research and Service Center, a Washington legal nonprofit that helps cities with legal trends and policy matters, flagged members to pay attention.
“If a municipality is enforcing camping ordinances, it should obtain review by its legal counsel in light of the Martin case and suspend enforcement until that process is complete,” the center said.
Kennewick officials believe their version is narrow enough to pass the legal test.
“The path that we’re on is still a good path,” Evelyn Lusignan, the city’s spokeswoman, told the Herald.
Both Boise and Kennewick criminalize homeless camping, but the similarity ends there. Boise outlawed virtually all camping and cited a handful of violators.
Kennewick restricts camping in three trouble spots — the Vista Way neighborhood near Highway 395, 27th Avenue near Walmart and Canal Drive near Lawrence Scott Park — and only between midnight and 6 a.m.
Kennewick authorizes officers to arrest those who resist moving along, but the city treats that as an option of last resort. No one has been arrested so far.
Boise has asked the federal court to reconsider its decision. For now, the decision is binding on the vast 9th Circuit, including Washington state.
Shelters have room
The ruling explicitly links anti-camping laws to the availability of space in homeless shelters.
If there is no shelter available, it could be considered cruel and unusual to penalize people for being outside, the court ruled.
The Tri-Cities has shelters, but they’re concentrated in Pasco.
The Tri-Cities Union Gospel Mission, the primary provider of shelter, accommodates up to 105 men and 32 women and children in its two Pasco facilities. It will dedicate a new 162-bed shelter for men in mid-November.
Andrew Porter, executive director, said the mission’s shelters are not full. The shelters are welcoming of anyone in the area, but they require guests to abide by rules, namely, no drugs or alcohol.
“We’re the Tri-Cities Union Gospel Mission,” Porter said, emphasizing “Tri-Cities.”
Porter said there has been no increase in demand since Kennewick passed its anti-camping rules.
“Maybe they’re finding better places to camp,” he said.
Boise made it a crime to camp in any public place and separately, prohibits camping in any public or private structure without permission. There are no restrictions on locations or hours.
The six plaintiffs who sued had all been prosecuted under the ordinances, with varying outcomes. Several had their cases dismissed but others were fined or even jailed.
They are represented by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group that argued penalizing people with no access to shelter violates the Eighth Amendment.
Even when shelter space was available, the court noted that shelters often limit the duration of a person’s stay or impose other conditions, such as mandatory participation in religious activities.
Boise initially prevailed, but after several appeals, the case landed last yar before the panel of three appellate court judges in Portland.
Kennewick’s camping crisis
In Kennewick, the standoff over homeless camping first erupted in 2017.
Daysprings Ministries, a jail and prison-focused ministry, moved its meal kitchen to leased space at River of Life Metropolitan Community Church, 2625 W. Bruneau Place, Vista Way and Highway 395.
Dayprings had operated in an industrial neighborhood near downtown Kennewick. Its new home was a church sandwiched between businesses on one side and apartments and houses on the other. Conflicts arose as the church and its parking lot transformed into an unofficial campground.
The campground was shut down over code violations. The city of Kennewick scrambled to adopt rules to govern church-sponsored homeless camps that didn’t encroach on their broad constitutional right to serve the poor.
But complaints persisted. River of Life requires visitors to leave its property after lunch. Those with nowhere else to go camped on neighboring sidewalks, possessions piled under tarps.
Neighbors and neighboring businesses complained the kitchen brought a hard-bitten crowd of drug users. Property damage, human waste, discarded needles and menacing behavior were common concerns.
Supporters were equally passionate, calling the ministry a life saver and imploring the city not to criminalize homelessness.
Kennwick Police Chief Ken Hohenberg said arresting people is the last thing he wants to see officers do.
The police department is creating a unit within its noon to midnight shift to help connect people who are legitimately homeless with services to kick drugs, connect to social services and get their lives back on track.
The 2018 Point In Time Count found 80 unsheltered men, women and children in Benton and Franklin counties in January, compared to 28 in 2017 and 59 in 2016.
The annual census likely doesn’t count every individual, but the numbers confirm a rise in homelessness, said officials.
Porter, of the Union Gospel Mission, said his organization stands ready to work with local agencies to address the root causes of homelessness, including poverty, substance abuse and the rising cost of housing in the Tri-Cities.
“We want to be part of the solution,” he said.