Boise Homelessness Case Resonates Across The West

Sep 23, 2019

When it comes to homelessness, it seems all eyes are on California. President Donald Trump is accusing homeless people there of damaging the environment and has suggested shutting down encampments. But Boise, Idaho, is at the center of a case that’s affecting cities across West.

The legal battle started a decade ago in Boise. At the time, if you were homeless and sleeping on the street, you’d be subject to a citation and fine.

“We had hundreds of people getting tickets, ending up in jail, losing all their possessions and having a record,” said Howard Belodoff, a lawyer with Idaho Legal Aid Services

Belodoff helped seven homeless and formerly homeless people take Boise to court over the practice. He argued the citations were cruel and unusual punishment.

“If you don't have any money, and you can't stay in a shelter, or there is no shelter, what are you supposed to do?” he asked.

The city responded and changed its ordinance a few years later to limit citations. As a result, a federal magistrate judge dismissed the suit Belodoff helped file. But there was a catch: The city could still cite people if there were beds available at a local shelter. 

The plaintiffs and their lawyers said that was unacceptable. Shelters aren’t always a good fit and some have religious requirements.

“You know, nobody has to accept anybody else's, other’s religions,” Belodoff said. “So why do homeless people?” 

Credit Dave Bieter's Facebook Page / City of Boise

The plaintiffs and Belodoff appealed to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals the lower court’s decision to dismiss their lawsuit. The 9th Circuit agreed with them. But it didn’t end there. 

“We have a real concern about the ruling,” said Boise Mayor Dave Bieter, who noted the city tickets people sleeping on the streets to prevent homeless camps. “It’s the opposite of compassion to have these camps because people prey on them, they’re dangerous,” he said.

Boise decided to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. That’s where we are now.

If the Supreme Court takes up the case, Boise won’t be fighting alone. Cities across the West were scrambling after the 9th Circuit decision because they depend on rules similar to Boise’s to control much larger homeless populations. Think Seattle or San Francisco. Sacramento, Sacramento County and Los Angeles County have already filed amicus briefs in support of Boise’s appeal. Other cities may join.

Meanwhile, as Boise waits to see if the Supreme Court steps in, citations continue. Officers like Craig Nixon, who patrols on a bike, find themselves on the frontlines.

Craig Nixon is in charge of the Boise Police Department's bicycle unit, generally patrolling the downtown area and bike path along the Boise River. He says he's worked with the department for 20 years.
Credit Madelyn Beck / The Mountain West News Burea

“It’s quite an interesting dynamic,” said Nixon, who tends to issue citations only after several warnings. “They know that we are going to offer them as much help as we can. But when it comes to the rules and the laws, they know that we have a job to do, and we're going to do it when we need to.”

Nixon said he knows a lot of the chronically homeless by name. Many suffer from mental illness, addiction or both. And he said it can be challenging trying to get them a bed for the night. 

“Because of some of their behavior inside the shelters, some of them can't go there,” Nixon said. “Part of the contention now is the fact that even if they're banned from being there, the ordinance says, sorry ... we're still going to enforce that.”

On a recent afternoon, in an alley behind Corpus Christi, a day shelter in Boise, a weathered man wearing a beaten-up pack said, “I know that every time we set up somewhere they make us move.” He wouldn’t tell this reporter his name. Talk to someone else, he said. That happened a lot. 

A young guy named Warren wore a backwards black cap and white-framed sunglasses. He said he can’t afford a place to live right now.

“Yeah, I just can’t handle the stress of a full day’s worth of work because I have bipolar and schizophrenia,” he said. 

Greg is 72 and said he's a retired respiratory therapist who's been homeless for five years, sometimes camping outside. He said police have generally treated him fairly.
Credit Madelyn Beck / The Mountain West News Bureau

Greg, 72, is in a similar financial situation. He said he’s a retired respiratory therapist and has been homeless for about five years. He said some people just don’t like the shelters, and that should be OK.

“Basically, my opinion is, if they really don’t want to stay in a shelter, if they’d rather camp outside, they should be allowed to do that as long as they’re not creating a horrible mess,” Greg said. 

The Supreme Court is expected to announce whether it will hear Martin v. City of Boise by year’s end.

Find reporter Madelyn Beck on Twitter @MadelynBeck8

Copyright 2019 Boise State Public Radio

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.