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Volunteers count the number of people experiencing homelessness during the annual King County Point-In-Time count on Friday, January 25, 2018, in Pioneer Square.
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Volunteers count the number of people experiencing homelessness during the annual King County Point-In-Time count on Friday, January 25, 2018, in Pioneer Square.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Sweeping tents illegal without ‘practical’ alternatives, court rules

Six homeless people in Boise, Idaho sued the city for clearing away their tents.

This week, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the campers. It’s illegal to criminalize homelessness if you can’t offer a practical alternative, the court ruled.

But there’s disagreement about what the ruling means for cities like Seattle.

Sara Rankin is a law professor at Seattle University. She said the ruling makes clear that sweeping away homeless camps in the way that Seattle does is illegal.

“Punishing people for existing in public is cruel and unusual,” said Rankin. It's cruel, she said, because it criminalizes survival outside.

Rankin said rather than spending money on clearing tent camps, the city could spend the money more effectively on permanent housing.

The ruling also says it’s illegal to sweep a camp without offering “practical” access to shelter.

In Boise, for example, some had to attend a Christian religious service to obtain shelter. Non-christians faced an impractical choice, the court ruled.

Rankin said the court left room for interpretation as to what other types of housing barriers might be illegal.

In Seattle, for example, some shelters aren’t open to people who have children, or to people who are actively using drugs. Rankin says that would make them impractical for certain kinds of people.

But city officials disagree that the ruling applies in Seattle. That's because the city regulates, rather than outlaws, camping outside, officials said.

“Based on my preliminary review, the 9th Circuit ruling does not appear to affect Seattle," City Attorney Pete Holmes said in a statement. "Unlike Boise, Seattle has no blanket citywide policy that criminalizes sleeping outside, therefore we don’t expect that this decision will affect the way the City is able to respond to people living outdoors.”

Seattle's process of sweeping homeless camps is currently making its way through the courts in a separate legal challenge.

But the city appears to be doubling down on making sure its offer of shelter during those sweeps stands up to legal scrutiny. Under Mayor Jenny Durkan, the city is increasing the number of shelter beds.