Supreme Court refusal to hear homeless case won’t change the way Anchorage clears camps

A decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to allow a lower court’s ruling protecting the rights of homeless people to sleep in parks or on sidewalks to stand will not change how Anchorage responds to to encampments, the municipal attorney said Monday.

“It has no effect on what we’re doing,” said city attorney Rebecca Windt Pearson.

The Supreme Court justices on Tuesday unanimously declined to hear the Boise v. Martin case, which rested on the issue of whether cities can enforce prohibitions against camping in public places.

In April, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that cities can’t enforce laws on sleeping in public places with fines or prosecution if there’s nowhere else for them to go, saying that the practice is a violation of the constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

That court ruling extends to nine western states including Alaska.

A group of cities led by Los Angeles had urged the Supreme Court to hear the case, saying it deprives municipalities of an important tool in managing burgeoning homeless encampments in their cities.

Anchorage already had adapted its policy to meet the requirements of the Boise v. Martin case when the initial Ninth Circuit ruling came down, said Windt Pearson.

The issue boils down to a single sentence in the court’s ruling that says you can’t criminalize homelessness when there’s no shelter available, she said.

“We set up a system — a running tally — that tracks bed availability,” Windt Pearson said. “And we’ve ceased homeless camp abatement when no beds available.”

The need to comply with the Boise v. Martin ruling “very infrequently” halted camp abatement work in Anchorage, Windt Pearson said.

In part that’s because summer is when most camp clearing work happens, and when shelters are less likely to be completely full.

Encampments specifically on sidewalks are less of an issue in Anchorage than in places such as Los Angeles, Windt Pearson said.

While the current ordinance is compliant with the law, the city is looking at ways of removing buildup of trash and materials at homeless encampments without tying the removal to any kind of criminal sanction, she said.

[Read more: Should people have a legal right to sleep on city streets? The nation’s homeless crisis sparks a partisan battle.]