Fresno County wants to overturn homeless camping rule. Will Supreme Court help?

Homeless people in Fresno on displacement by police

Fresno county says it is doing everything it can to help homeless people, but makeshift encampments are not the answer. Homeless people say they have nowhere else to go.
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Fresno county says it is doing everything it can to help homeless people, but makeshift encampments are not the answer. Homeless people say they have nowhere else to go.

Fresno County is joining with several other governing boards in a push to overturn a recent court ruling that forbids cities and counties from criminalizing homeless camping.

The Board of Supervisors decided this month to follow the lead of other local governments, like the city and county of Sacramento, in opposing the decision in the case of Martin v. City of Boise. The coalition will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the decision.

The Boise ruling says if there’s no shelter option, the government cannot criminalize homeless people for sleeping in public on the “false premise” that they had a choice in the matter.

Advocates for the homeless say the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling is common sense, and any attempt to overturn it is callous.

But Fresno County is dealing with a problem counties statewide face, in terms of the conundrum between finding housing for the homeless and ensuring clean and safe streets, according to Nathan Magsig, the chairman of the Fresno County Board of Supervisors.

He pointed to homeless encampments in parts of the state that have seen outbreaks of disease uncommonly found in modern society, like the outbreak of typhus in Los Angeles County and hepatitis A in many parts of Southern California.

The Boise decision puts governing bodies in a bind, he said. “It really is taking away the responsibility for local government in providing public places for all,” he said Thursday. “There are people who refuse to sleep in a bed even if one is available for them. So then what do we do?”

There about 2,100 people living on the streets or in a shelter in Fresno County, according to most recent annual tally. Magsig said the county has worked with BNSF Railroad to clean up 55 homeless camps in the past 18 months.

By submitting an amicus brief in the Boise case, Fresno County is expected to argue the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision has tied the hands of law enforcement and threatened public health and safety.

With an issue as complex as homelessness, local governments need all the tools and information available to make informed choices about how to help people, according to Theane Evangelis, lead counsel for the City of Boise.

“Right now the Ninth Circuit decision takes that debate off the table and makes it impossible for cities to come up with solutions,” Evangelis said.

As California faces a housing crisis, many larger cities are scrambling to increase the number of units available to the homeless. The Fresno-Madera Continuum of Care has used state dollars to make more than 200 new beds available in Fresno for the homeless in the past 60 days.

Homeless advocates decried Fresno County’s joining the coalition to overturn the ruling.

“Make no mistake, this is a way to criminalize the homeless,” Fresno advocate Mike Rhodes said on Thursday.

“It never ceases to amaze me the cruelty the city and county inflicts on the homeless population,” he said. “To try to overturn that (ruling) is an outrage. People don’t have any place to go.”

Sacramento Bee reporter Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks contributed to this story.
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Reporter Thaddeus Miller has covered cities in the central San Joaquin Valley since 2010, writing about everything from breaking news to government and police accountability. A native of Fresno, he joined The Fresno Bee in 2019 after time in Merced and Los Banos.