Law enforcement's role

Is it legal for someone to sleep on the sidewalk or other public property?

A landmark federal court decision says yes — if there aren’t shelter beds available. Allowed to stand by the Supreme Court in late 2019, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Martin vs City of Boise that ticketing, arresting or otherwise criminalizing people living outside violates constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment. Several California cities and counties filed amicus briefs urging the Supreme Court to reverse the decision, arguing it would hamstring efforts to clear homeless encampments that posed serious public health and safety risks.

The impact of the Boise decision remains unclear. Police departments and sheriffs still can enforce various “quality of life” ordinances, as well as bans against public defecation and drug use. Many advocates say issuing citations against these behaviors is counterproductive, because people experiencing homelessness have few resources to pay off city fines, and brief incarceration episodes only add to housing instability.

Homelessness puts enormous financial and resource strains on California police and sheriff departments. A recent audit of how Los Angeles spends homelessness dollars found that more than 50% went to law enforcement. Several police departments have created units dedicated to interacting with homeless populations, often pairing cops with social workers.

Homelessness is also cutting into transportation dollars. In the 2020-21 fiscal year, California spent about $15 million on camp cleanups, and projects to spend $36 million in the next year. Camp clearings also soared from 19 in 2020, when federal health officials advised against them during the pandemic, to 347 in 2021 by mid-October.

Experts question the effectiveness of encampment clearings, where people can lose what little belongings they still have and still not be anywhere closer to getting housed. Through a computer modeling study that did not undergo peer review, Boston researchers disbanding a homeless camp was more likely to drive up overdoses, hospitalizations and mortality. A new national study conducted by Abt Associates and commissioned by the federal government found that clearings have very high price tags, but little in the way of results.