A city notice that the homeless encampment along Shoreline Drive and the LA River is being cleared out, Monday, May 17, 2021. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

For years, Long Beach officials have said their hands are tied when it comes to sweeping away homeless encampments. With local shelters often at capacity, the city rarely enforced its ban on camping because of a Ninth Circuit court decision that said it was unconstitutional to criminalize people sleeping in public unless there was another bed to offer them.

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned those legal protections, clearing the way for Long Beach — and other cities across the country — to decide how aggressively they will kick encampments off public property.

“I think this ruling will help cities like Long Beach,” said City Prosecutor Doug Haubert, who would be responsible for pressing misdemeanor charges under Long Beach’s anti-camping ordinance.

Before today, Long Beach would cite someone for camping in public only if there had been “multiple attempts of outreach and refusal of an available shelter bed,” according to a recent city memo. Legally, those requirements are now removed, but, city officials said, don’t expect a dramatic change in their overall approach.

Mayor Rex Richardson praised the court ruling in a statement, saying it cut through legal ambiguities that limited the city from taking “common-sense measures,” but, he emphasized, “the ruling will not end homelessness.”

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He said the city is focused on the root causes of the problem. Richardson and other Long Beach officials often talk about their strategy of leading with services and compassion, not enforcement.

Building relationships with people living in encampments and offering help with basic needs like food, water and medical care are “the critical first step” to getting people into shelter and, hopefully, into longer-term housing, according to the city memo.

Richardson said that strategy is working. He pointed to a recent 2% decline in the local homeless population, which outpaced the county’s progress.

The “services-first” approach can and should continue, Haubert said.

“But now we will have more tools to get people into services,” he said. “So many people refuse help because they know nothing will happen. Now that enforcement is a possible outcome some people will agree to help.”

Nevertheless, Friday’s ruling may put pressure on Long Beach to deal with some of the highly visible encampments across the city.

The progress Richardson cites has made only a small dent in the overall homeless population that ballooned during the pandemic and rose to a high of 3,447 last year. This year, the city counted 3,376 people without adequate shelter, including a sharp rise in the number of those who are chronically homeless.

Many residents say they’re frustrated there hasn’t been more progress.

Within hours of the verdict, a group began emailing city officials, urging them to clear out areas around Alamitos Beach, the Billie Jean King Main Library, Lincoln Park and the East Village.

“The cuffs and excuses are now removed,” one Downtown resident, Bob Kruse, wrote. “PLEASE take back our public spaces for the PUBLIC.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct the spelling of Kruse.

Jeremiah Dobruck is managing editor of the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @jeremiahdobruck on Twitter.