Martin v. Boise upholds right to sleep outside when there are no other options

You may have seen coverage of the Supreme Court's decision on the case of Martin v. Boise, which affirms the right of people to sleep in public if municipalities are not providing adequate shelter and housing services. Quick recap: six people experiencing homelessness in Boise, Idaho, were arrested for violating the city's anti-camping ordinance, despite a lack of accessible shelter options. A Federal Court eventually determined that "the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter." The Supreme Court declined to take up the City of Boise's appeal, letting the decision stand.

We celebrate this decision because it recognizes that people do not choose to be homeless. While we in the homeless services field take that for granted, some policymakers, commentators, and members of the public have a recurring, vague suspicion that people experiencing homelessness are just too lazy or irresponsible to get back into housing and could if they really wanted it. Laws that criminalize homelessness, reduce benefits, or limit services supposedly act as paternal "tough love" to goad them back into line.

At the very least, the threat of being arrested, ticketed, or otherwise dealing with law enforcement, can make people reluctant to seek the services that would get them back into housing, which is everyone's goal, right? The criminalization of homelessness, which, sadly, will not end with the Martin decision, leads me and many others to seriously question if that's true. Some policymakers just seem hell-bent on making recovery from homelessness more difficult and forcing communities to bear more costs to preserve their illusions surrounding the extent of self-determination.

As for the decision's effect on our work, we continue to regularly reach out to people who may be sleeping outside or in encampments by visiting soup kitchens, food pantries, libraries, parks, forest preserves, and other places they might congregate. Our network of 15 emergency overnight shelters ensures that people have safe places to stay every night. And law enforcement works cooperatively with us if they come into contact with people experiencing homelessness.

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