City prosecutor says Supreme Court’s decision not to review homeless camping ban creates confusion over local enforcement

The United States Supreme Court’s decision on Monday not to review a lower court’s ruling that says homeless people can sleep on the streets if a city does not have enough shelter beds is now causing confusion for cities over how to enforce anti-camping laws, Long Beach’s city prosecutor said.

The ruling stemmed from a landmark lawsuit in Boise, Idaho over whether the city has the right to enforce an ordinance banning people from sleeping on the streets when no alternative shelter is available. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately ruled that the Boise ordinance violated the constitutional ban on “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Long Beach City Prosecutor Doug Haubert on Monday said he was hoping the Supreme Court would review the appellate court’s ruling to clarify confusion and vagueness in the law as it stands now.

In one example, the law states that anti-camping ordinances can be enforced if a homeless individual was offered support services and turned down those services, but the law is vague as to the extent of services that need to be offered, he said.

“I believe a lot of cities will take a hands-off approach because they are concerned about being sued,” he said. “Cities will not officer services, nor will they enforce anti-camping laws because of the uncertainty.”

However, Haubert said he believes Long Beach will not see any major impact from the ruling because the city for years has offered comprehensive services for the homeless. He said police are now careful to document the fact that they offered services to a homeless person before they enforce the city’s anti-camping ordinance.

He said the city will continue to enforce ordinances in places like the beaches and parks that prohibit overnight camping.

“Long Beach does a very good job of proving shelter and accommodations as well as supportive housing for those in need, and we will continue to do that,” Haubert said. 

Monday’s decision comes as homelessness continues to be a chronic problem for cities throughout the U.S.

Overall, Long Beach has fared better than other cities, like Los Angeles, in reducing its homeless rates. In June, the city’s homeless count showed a small increase, while populations elsewhere swelled.

The city’s 2019 homeless count found 31 more people living on the streets or in some other non-permanent housing situation, for an increase of about 2%. The total number of sheltered and unsheltered people rose from 1,863 in the 2017 count to 1,894 this year. Los Angeles County showed an increase of 12% countywide, while Orange County figures showed a 40% increase.

Long Beach is in the process of building a year-round homeless shelter to open early next year.

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Kelly Puente is a general assignment and special projects reporter at the Long Beach Post. Her prolific reporting has taken her all over Southern California—even to the small Catalina Island town of Two Harbors. She is a Tiki mug collector and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in public policy and administration at Cal State Long Beach. Reach her at [email protected].