In this blog post, Maria Foscarinis, Executive Director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, explains what the Martin v Boise ruling means, why it is so important to efforts to end homelessness, and how funders can support momentum on opportunity for progress.
On December 16th, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a petition to review Martin v. Boise, a case that the Law Center and partners have been litigating for a decade. By denying the petition, the high Court left in place a ruling from the federal court of appeals for the Ninth Circuit that people experiencing homelessness cannot be punished for sleeping outside when there are no other alternatives. This ruling is binding on the nine states in Circuit--Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Idaho, Hawaii, Montana, Arizona, and Alaska—and sets precedent that is persuasive in courts nationally. It’s a victory for everyone fighting against the criminalization of homelessness and for the basic human rights of our unhoused neighbors.
(Image via NLCHP)
Our goal at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty is to end homelessness so that no one has to sleep on the street to begin with. By making clear that punishing people for living outside is unconstitutional when no alternatives are available, the ruling adds a powerful tool for fighting harmful criminalization. Our challenge now is to help communities develop positive alternative policies and to build the political will to put them in place.
What does this mean for efforts to end homelessness?
The Martin v Boise ruling now stands as law in the Ninth Circuit and as precedent nationally. In fact, recently it was cited in court opinions in Colorado and in Virginia. The ruling sets important constitutional parameters protecting the rights of people experiencing homelessness in public places. But our hope is that local governments will view this not as a limitation but rather as an opportunity to develop true solutions to homelessness. We know that housing—and the housing first approach-- is effective and saves taxpayer dollars. We also know that while communities put that housing in place, they have constructive interim options to address health and sanitation concerns.
(Image via NLCHP)
The Law Center and our allies are now working quickly to offer constructive alternatives to cities throughout the Ninth Circuit and beyond. We have collected models and examples in our reports, and we are working to develop more resources, including case studies of successful responses to the ruling. As more cities respond constructively—and as we help them do so—we show that solutions exist and that they benefit not just people experiencing homelessness, but the entire community.
Thinking Beyond Shelters for Solutions
Some cities are responding with plans simply to build more emergency shelters. While this may seem positive, the reality is more complex. There is a role for emergency shelters that are low barrier, accessible, and welcoming. However, many are not and they can be inaccessible to people with disabilities, families and couples, people who identify as LGBTQ, people with pets, and people who are non-religious. They can also force people to leave every morning, abandon precious and necessary personal items, arrive at times incompatible with work schedules, and they can be located far away from public transportation, services and jobs.
The real, long-term solution to homelessness is available and affordable housing.
How Philanthropy Can Support Momentum on the Ruling
The Ninth Circuit ruling is a landmark legal victory—and it is also a critical opportunity for progress. At the Law Center, we are working with our allies to capitalize on this success by fighting against laws that criminalize homelessness, advocating for constructive alternatives, educating communities about legal rights, and building support for the human right to housing. Here’s how you can help:
- Support grassroots organization to fight against laws that criminalize homelessness. In our 2019 Housing Not Handcuffs Report, we found that, of 187 cities surveyed, the number of laws criminalizing homelessness has steadily gone up since 2006. In 2019, every single city measured had at least one law prohibiting conduct such as sitting, lying, or sleeping outside, loitering, begging, or food sharing—actions generally essential to existing when experiencing unsheltered homelessness. It is crucial for organizations working in community to have the capacity to mobilize and fight against these types of harmful laws.
- Educate policymakers on constructive alternatives and Housing First. Governments at local, state, and federal levels must commit to increased investments in affordable and available housing. Even increased investments are more cost-effective than employing law enforcement to ticket people experiencing homelessness, and more cost-effective than putting people into the court and prison systems. Philanthropy can utilize its influence and voice by educating policymakers at all levels on what we know works and what is needed to scale it in communities across the country.
- Educate your community. Even with high-profile cases like Martin v. Boise, there can be a dearth of misinformation and misrepresentation about legal protections. Understanding what the court ruling means—and doesn’t mean--is essential to building community support and ensuring protection for people experiencing homelessness. As conveners, philanthropy can provide a space for community stakeholders to gather, set shared goals, and work together to build that support and understanding.
- Use your influence to build support for the human right to housing. Housing is a basic human need, and it is also recognized in international law as a human right. But while federal law long ago set “a decent home and suitable living environment” as a goal for every American, we are far from reaching it. Now, thanks to advocacy by the Law Center, advocates on the ground, and other national partners, more policymakers are recognizing this basic human right, and we are supporting their efforts to make it a reality. Philanthropy has a unique role in building this support through engagement in public-private partnerships. By lifting up your organization’s priorities and values around housing as a basic right and bringing it to the larger table, your influence can have a widespread effect.
Criminally punishing people experiencing homelessness for sleeping on the street when they have nowhere else to go is inhumane, ineffective and wastes resources. We are grateful that the Ninth Circuit has recognized that it is also unconstitutional and set precedent to which other courts can look. But the work is not done yet—not until everyone has a safe, decent, affordable housing.
(Header image credit: iStock)
Maria Foscarinis is the Executive Director and Founder of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. In the mid-1980s, Maria was a litigator at Sullivan & Cromwell, a large corporate law firm, where she volunteered to represent homeless families on a pro bono basis. After seeing the impact of first-rate legal advocacy on the lives of homeless people, she left the firm to dedicate herself to that work full-time. In 1989, she established the Law Center with one goal in mind: ending homelessness in America.