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Supreme Court hears arguments on fining homeless campers, challenges precedent from Boise | Idaho

BOISE — The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments Monday in Johnson v. Grants Pass (Ore.) over whether a city can ticket homeless people for camping in public areas if they have nowhere else to go.

The current precedent, set in the 9th Circuit Court via Martin v. Boise (2018), established that this violated the Eighth Amendment. It is “cruel and unusual punishment” to enforce such an ordinance when there are no shelter beds available for people experiencing homelessness.

“It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t solve the problem,” said Martin v. Boise attorney Howard Belodoff. ‘You might as well give them a red letter. We are going to create a caste system like in India and they will be the untouchables at the bottom.”

Belodoff is not involved in Johnson v. Grants Pass; however, he is following the case closely because of its national implications. Overriding the 9th Circuit’s ruling on Boise v. Martin gives cities across the country the opportunity to do the same: criminalize homelessness.

“All they have to do is copy the three Grants Pass ordinances, make them illegal and just run them out of town,” Belodoff said. “But where do the homeless go? Where do you want them to go? They’re still homeless.”

To qualify as an open bed – an alternative for a person to get off the street – the bed must be accessible, according to Belodoff. Interfaith Sanctuary is converting the old State Street Salvation Army in Boise into a 24/7 emergency shelter with 205 low-barrier beds.

At its current facility in downtown Boise, Interfaith turns away up to 30 people per night in the most extreme weather conditions.

“We use our entire floor,” says Interfaith director Jodi Peterson-Stigers. “And that’s been going on for a while.”

The possible Grants Pass ruling concerns Peterson-Stigers. People experiencing chronic homelessness are still using Interfaith after previously receiving treatment before Martin v. Boise.

“It feels like we’re going backwards instead of forwards,” Peterson-Stigers said. “These are real people really trying to survive one night at a time.”

Belodoff expects the Supreme Court to rule by the end of June. The court previously dismissed an appeal on the same issue; however, this time the court accepted the appeal – Johnson v. Grants Pass.

“Well, that’s your answer. (SCOTUS) has changed,” Belodoff said. “The Constitution hasn’t changed. The calculus hasn’t changed. The ordinances haven’t changed. The homeless haven’t changed. That’s the only thing that’s changed.”