Fresno’s city leaders are weighing options after the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday that punishing homeless people for camping amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.
The ruling overturned a decision out of Boise, Idaho. The federal court sided with a group of current or former homeless people who sued Boise for damages and injunctive relief from future enforcement of a camping and disorderly conduct ordinance.
The ruling says if there’s no shelter option, the government cannot criminalize the homeless for sleeping in public on the “false premise” that they had a choice in the matter.
In August 2017, the Fresno City Council outlawed camping in public and private spaces for people who are homeless. District 2 Councilman Steve Brandau proposed the ordinance after receiving complaints from businesses about nuisances caused by homeless encampments. Council President Esmeralda Soria, who represents District 1, cast the only no vote. The city’s ordinance allows campers to accept services instead of going to jail.
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Mike Rhodes, a longtime homeless advocate in Fresno, said the ruling directly applies to Fresno. “It’s obvious this would affect Fresno because we are in that exact same position,” he said. “We do not have enough shelter beds for people to go to. They have arrested people for sleeping outside. What are they supposed to do? You’re punishing people because they’re too poor.”
Brandau, however, said the Ninth Circuit “activist judges” are “out of touch with the needs of the people.”
“Obviously, they’re not connected with the reality that we face on the streets of Fresno,” he said. “It is still my opinion that Fresno has a homeless crisis. I still get a lot of phone calls at my district office from people with concerns about the homeless.”
City leaders on Wednesday said in a statement they were aware of the court ruling, and attorneys are analyzing options to ensure full compliance with the decision.
“The city of Fresno ordinance does provide that each police officer, when coming into contact with someone suspected of camping in violation of the ordinance, shall facilitate connection with services for the homeless, including a bed. Citations are relatively rare,” the city’s statement reads.
Fresno Police Department statistics show that from October 2017 to June this year, six people were cited for illegal camping.
Chief Jerry Dyer said the police department’s homeless task force already operates in compliance with the ruling. When officers encounter a homeless person in violation of the city’s camping ban, officers first offer services to the individual. If the person accepts, officers call the Poverello House to see if a bed is available. If no bed is available, the officers don’t enforce the ordinance, Dyer said.
Most homeless campers choose to pack up their belongings and move on.
“If we determine that what our officers are doing is inconsistent with that ruling, we’ll make modifications accordingly,” Dyer said.
Cruz Avila, CEO of the Poverello House, pointed to the 2017 Fresno Madera Continuum of Care’s “Point in Time” homeless count to demonstrate the need for shelter space in Fresno.
In 2017, the Point in Time count identified 1,864 people living homeless in Fresno County. The Poverello House has 72 “low-barrier” beds in its shelter, meaning they offer the bed to someone “no questions asked.”
Avila said the Poverello House will patiently continue its work serving the needy and working with the city, county, nonprofits and other partners in the fight to reduce homelessness.
“But there’s got to be a tipping point where folks see there is a true need” for beds, he said. “You can see it by the numbers. … We have a lot of support, but at the end of the day, support is one thing and implementation and dollars is another.”
Rhodes agreed, saying leaders need to muster the political will to correctly use money to address the issue. “Continuing the same old method is not going to end homelessness and improve people’s lives,” he said. “Clearly what Fresno is doing right now is not working. The challenge is how do we get there?”
Councilman Luis Chavez, who represents District 5 in southeast Fresno, said this court ruling could be the tipping point.
“Here’s the bottom line: I think what this will do is really force the city to address the homeless issue,” he said. “It’s a blessing in disguise.”
Both Brandau and Chavez said the city and county are working together on a plan for a shelter to help people transition out of homelessness. The talks are in the early stages.
Soria called for a public update from city officials on the issue at one of the next council meetings.
“We can’t arrest ourselves out of a problem when you don’t have sufficient resources,” she said. “The law is clear, and the court has spoken.”