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City of Boise will pay out $1.3 million settlement in camping ordinance lawsuit

A legal battle spanning more than a decade about the rights of those experiencing homelessness to sleep outside is over.

On Monday, the City of Boise announced it reached an agreement in the long-running case Martin v. Boise over the city’s ordinance that once issued tickets to anyone sleeping on the streets. The settlement requires the city not to ticket or arrest people experiencing homelessness for sleeping outdoors when no shelter is available.

[Homelessness on wheels: Boise Police, social workers launch new initiative for those living in vehicles in downtown Boise]

The city will also pay out a $1.335 million settlement later this year to address the issue of homelessness, one-third of which will be committed to “rehabilitating or creating additional overnight shelter space.” The release did not say which agency would receive the funds.

A long road

“The City of Boise is happy to have reached an agreement that advances our goal of putting those experiencing homelessness on a path to permanent housing and is consistent with the current city policy,” Mayor Lauren McLean said in the release. “This agreement will deliver on a promise I made to the people of Boise that I would resolve this decade-long litigation we inherited.”

The case is part of Boise’s fraught history with homelessness. The case, brought in part by Howard Belodoff from the Idaho Legal Aid Society, came from a handful of Boiseans experiencing homelessness who sued the city over tickets they received for sleeping outdoors under the city’s ordinance prohibiting public camping.

Since the initial suit, the City of Boise changed its policy and only issues tickets for camping when there is room in the shelters. In the years since the change, the city often only issues a handful of tickets per year.

‘So happy’

In the fall of 2018, the case made its way to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals where the judges ruled it was a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment to issue tickets when there were no shelter spaces available. The city, under former mayor Dave Bieter, moved to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court in late 2019, but the nation’s highest court declined to hear the case and remanded it back to district court a year ago.

To comply with the settlement, Boise will amend two ordinances related to outdoor camping “to bring them in line” with the city’s current policy around not issuing tickets if shelters are full or if they are unable to access shelter based on “disability, sexual orientation or religious practices.” Interfaith Sanctuary has looser restrictions on who can stay at the shelter, but Boise Rescue Mission is a faith-based organization with strict rules on how long guests can stay if they choose not to participate in their programming. 

The changes to the ordinance will further define what “available” shelter space means. It will not count room in a shelter where a guest has exceeded the maximum stay rule, they will not be accommodated because of their sex or sexual orientation or where they cannot be accommodated due to their mental or physical health needs.

Room in a shelter where a minor child cannot be housed with at least one parent or child or where participation in religious activities or programming is required to stay will also not be counted as “available.”

Every night, police officers will make contact with the shelters after 11 p.m. to find out how much space is available. Before a citation is issued, the ordinance requires the officer to find out if the space available can be used by the individual they find sleeping outside.

Pamela Hawkes Duke, one of the plaintiffs, applauded the settlement in the press release.

“I am so happy and proud to see everyone’s hard work finally come together in such a way that will help so many people,” Duke said. “I am really looking forward to seeing what other cities come up with as time goes on, especially when the City of Boise will have laid down the foundation for what it could look like.”

Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev senior reporter
Margaret Carmel is a BoiseDev reporter focused on the City of Boise, housing, homelessness and growth. Contact her at [email protected] or by phone at (757)705-8066.

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