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’ ruling in Martin vs City of Boise held 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 over 50% went to law enforcement. Several police departments have created units dedicated to interacting with homeless populations, often pairing cops with social workers.

Sweeps also take a toll on unsheltered people, who can lose what little belongings they still have — including sleeping bags, family photographs and medicine.