Washington cities can now penalize those sleeping outdoors — but will they?

Photo courtesy Pexels

The nation’s high court cleared the way Friday for cities and counties to outlaw sleeping outdoors in public places, igniting fear it will lead to more homelessness in Washington.

“It’s a very, very, very bad decision for people experiencing homelessness. This says they can be punished for the mere act of trying to survive without shelter,” said Michele Thomas, director of policy advocacy for the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance.

“We’ll see how this plays out in Washington state. We are calling on lawmakers in cities and counties to not arrest or punish people, or issue fines,” she said.  This decision,coupled with the looming potential of cuts to homeless services if current funding levels are not maintained, could lead to more people experiencing homelessness and that “would be devastating

But Camas City Councilmember Leslie Lewallen praised the court’s ruling in the so-called Grants Pass case as a win for local control.

“Every day, people in southwest Washington are on the front lines working with the homeless community and know that there is not a one-size-fits-all solution,” said Lewallen, a Republican candidate in the 3rd Congressional District. “The Supreme Court’s decision rightly returns power to our local governments and gives them the authority that they need to help homeless individuals.”

The ability to limit sleeping outdoors is seen by local and state governments as one tool to confront a proliferation of unsheltered people putting out sleeping bags on sidewalks, tents in alleyways and encampments in parks and open spaces.

A 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in 2018 in the case Martin v. City of Boise set some ground rules. Local governments could not punish individuals for camping if there were no emergency shelter beds available. The 9th Circuit judges ruled it would be cruel and unusual punishment to do so. But if a person is offered shelter and refuses to accept it, then they could be cited or arrested, per the decision.

In Grants Pass v. Johnson, the Oregon city’s law that barred sleeping in public places was challenged because the city lacked available shelter capacity.

After the Martin decision, several Washington cities crafted ordinances compelling homeless individuals to accept housing, even if it’s miles away, to avoid punishment. They put them on hold pending the outcome of the Grants Pass case.

“This decision, while not surprising, is a horrible decision,” said Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds, chair of the House Housing Committee. “The idea of arresting somebody just trying to survive is contrary to what we should be doing. It won’t do anything about homelessness. If anything it will exacerbate the problem.”

Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, who leads the Senate Housing Committee, said the decision “pulls us backward rather than help us move forward.”

“Justice Sotamayor put it best. We can balance between the needs of local governments and the dignity of our most vulnerable. The decision focuses on the needs of local

governments and leaves the most vulnerable with the impossible choice of either stay awake or be arrested,” Kuderer said, referring to a dissent by Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Easing homelessness will require controlling rent costs, increasing affordable housing and boosting funding of support services for those without a home, Peterson, Thomas and Kuderer said.

In that pursuit, legislation calling for a cap on rent increases and a new graduated real estate excise tax, both of which failed in this year’s state legislative session, are likely to be revived in 2025, Peterson said.

Rep. Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia, a member of the Housing Committee, said the ruling is “a good thing.” Civic leaders felt the Martin decision hampered their ability to respond in an appropriate or timely manner when new encampments form, he said.

“I think cities should have all the tools at their disposal to be able to address this crisis,” he said. “We’ll see how it plays out here over time.”

Pouring more money into homeless programs and imposing caps on rent hikes aren’t the answer, he said. Nor is locking up those sleeping outdoors. Better to beef up detox programs and mental health services because that’s what many of those individuals need, he said.

“I don’t believe we’ve done enough on this issue,” he said. “Obviously we’ve spent hundreds of millions of dollars on services and the problem remains the same.”

State lawmakers have directed roughly $5 billion to expand housing and prevent homelessness since 2013, with more than $4 billion of the total allotted in the past two state budgets.

“It’s not like we’re not getting people out of homelessness,” Kuderer said. “People are falling into homelessness at a much faster rate than we can get them out of it. This is a solvable problem. This decision doesn’t help us solve it.”

— By Jerry Cornfield, Washington State Standard

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: info@washingtonstatestandard.com. Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and X.

  1. It’s a great decision imo! I certainly feel empathy for the homeless but what about the much larger percentage of Washingtonians who have the right to clean and safe streets? To be able to walk down a street without feces, needles, threats and begging?

    As long as people are “allowed” to sleep on the street, nothing will be done. Billions of dollars have gotten us where?

    A certain % of the homeless refuse shelters and services. At least now, cities can do something about it instead of throw their hands in the air and play the blame game. This allows us, the taxpayers, to hold politicians accountable.

  2. We the people have been punished long enough. We have contributed millions to this problem and have become part of the problem. Remember when everyone smoked??? What changed? We started stopping the behavior due to hard decisions. We stopped taking monies from tobacco companies, we no longer had people smoking in movies, on and on. People stopped allowing it in buildings, outside etc. that’s what we do here. We didn’t throw more money into tobacco and bad decisions, make it illegal to camp. No more allowing it in parks. The kids and adults are suffering. Instead of addressing the problem..we pushed it into lower income housing and their areas…what??? Why should a cheap housing area have to suffer and have their housing values lower by forcing homeless addicts into their neighborhoods? And make them less safe?? Stop it all together…arrest and rehab or jail. The end.

  3. This doesn’t automatically mean tickets or arrests. You can take the offer of shelter or treatment or you can just move along. Tickets do no good but being arrested is usually enough of a deterrent for you to make a decision.

  4. The disconnect in all this is punishing the responsible people in a misguided belief that allowing the irresponsible or incapable people for whatever reasons to just do whatever they want wherever they want regardless of who it impacts or hurts. As a “responsible” person with net worth and tax paying capability, I’m not allowed to take my camp trailer up to Yost Park Parking lot to sleep and have cook outs. But as an “irresponsible or incapable” person with little or no net worth and no tax paying capability, I can be given a tent and some food bank food and allowed to set up camp at Yost Park or outside the Library or Courthouse due to my vulnerability?

    In short, as a society we should provide those who either can’t or won’t provide shelter for themselves some basic clean and sanitary places to camp and sleep; but those places shouldn’t be our parks and public facilities like Court House Lawns and Libraries. We need public supported poor houses and parks where able bodied people are expected to do work if they can and addicted people are expected to take treatment, over and over again as needed in a clean and sanitary situation. We could easily do this with the combined monies we are currently spending on the homelessness industry.

  5. The #SCOTUS decision is not a mandate(persondate??)

    It is left up to local governments to decide how to address homelessness. One size does not fit all situations.

    …Just sayin’

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