City waits on Supreme Court decision before altering camping ordinance

The city of Susanville will wait for the Supreme Court’s decision before making any alterations to its camping ordinance.

The subject was discussed at the city council’s June 19 meeting where police chief Kevin Jones spoke on the subject.

The city’s municipal code currently states that it is unlawful to camp, occupy camp facilities, use camp paraphernalia or store personal property, including camp facilities and camp paraphernalia in the following areas, except as otherwise provided by resolution of the city council: in any park, any street, any public parking lot or public area, improved or unimproved and publicly owned property that is designated for public or government use.

In the summary of the council’s agenda item, the staff wrote that these code sections can be interpreted as criminalizing homelessness as seen in recent case law.

In the case of Martin v. City of Boise, the 9th Circuit of Appeal held that the “Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment bars a city from prosecuting people criminally for sleeping outside on public property when those people have no home or other shelter to go to.”

In the Boise case, there were three homeless shelters in Boise and there were not enough beds among all the shelters to house the entire homeless population of Boise.

However, some shelters required participation in religious events as part of receiving services at the shelter and two of the shelters had overtly religious messages on shelter literature and inside the shelter.

Law enforcement in Boise initiated a policy in which the camping ordinance and the disorderly conduct ordinance would not be enforced when the shelters were full.

However, the faith-based shelters didn’t report they were full during the time period in question and the policy didn’t account for the times that people were turned away from a shelter because they reached the limit on the number of days they could stay in a particular shelter.

The written summary of the agenda item stated that, “Although there may be shelter available in Susanville to shelter those in need, the shelter may not always be available for a number of reasons and so enforcing the Municipal Code’s ban on camping on public property within the City may subject the city to litigation.

It could be argued that the City can make changes to the no camping ordinance to avoid violating the 8th Amendment rights of certain classes of people without substantially modifying the spirit of the ordinance.”

Additionally, the staff wrote that the situation in the Boise case may not be the same as the situation in Susanville and so it may be argued that Susanville’s no-camping ordinance does not violate the 8th Amendment of the US Constitution.

Despite the arguments the staff recommended passing an ordinance modifying the municipal code to allow camping in certain public places within the city limits with certain restrictions, such as: prohibiting camps from being within a certain distance of public trails, roads, rivers, creeks, streams, ponds, bodies of water, playgrounds or athletic fields. Staff also recommended making camping a misdemeanor instead of an infraction.

Councilmember Mendy Schuster asked a few questions and posed her thoughts regarding the issue.

Schuster first made a reference to page nine of the Martin v. City of Boise appeal of the U.S. District Court for the State of Idaho.

“It says that the plaintiffs … are all homeless individuals who have lives in or around Boise since at least 2007,” said Schuster. “So the last count that came before our council on the number of homeless that are documented in our town, there were five, and those documented homeless … those five had received services at a shelter. So, I think what we’re dealing with here are not our homeless population, like Boise was. We’re dealing with transients.”

Schuster admitted she thought it wasn’t a popular opinion, but thought it might be an overreaction to take any action on the measure at the moment. With county land intertwined within and around the city limits, Schuster thought it might be premature, and that it’d be better to have a multi-pronged approach to the transient community, talk to the county as well as look into state laws. She also wondered with the amount of churches the community had, that maybe some could step into some sort of role.

Jones spoke up and told Schuster and council that “I would love to agree with you on the transients. Unfortunately, the vast majority are local based.” He also mentioned that those involved in the homeless count included persons in the county jail and wasn’t sure what the exact count of homeless person actually was.

Mayor pro tem Joseph Franco told the council that he had “recently viewed a Youtube video on the city of Seattle and their so-called homeless situation there.”

Franco also spoke of similar situations in both Sacramento and Los Angeles. He said, “It begs the question: is it really a homeless problem or is it a drug problem?”

Franco said that he would like to make sure the city focused on exactly what was the problem and to get those help that may need it.

Jones responded to Franco speaking of the rising mental health issues the country was currently facing. Jones emphasized that the majority of those homeless persons he had reached out, spoken of and offered the city and county’s services to had refused.

Jones told the council that at the moment the current ordinance on the city’s books were unenforceable, but that if the council would like to create something that fits within the court’s decision, he would be open to it.

Local resident Thomas Wasson was given the opportunity to speak to the council and reiterated the police chief’s findings, in that, “to them now it’s a game,” said Wasson. “To come to the city. To convert everything that they can: the free services and food, and convert it into money. Likely to get drugs or whatever they want.”

Wasson also echoed the statements by Jones with regards to the rise in drug use and mental health issues. He also spoke about the vandalism and bothersome environment at the local library.

Councilmember Brian Moore told Jones he liked where he was going with restrictions from camping in certain areas as well as working with local businesses.

Councilmember Brian Wilson spoke up to say taking action would be “a little premature,” and that the city should wait until it goes to the Supreme Court’s decision — which may possibly happen within a few months.

Ultimately, the council and the city decided against taking action to alter the ordinance and instead will, as mayor Kevin Stafford said would “let it ride” to the Supreme Court’s decision.