West Coast Cities Ask for Authority on Homeless


The headline on Danny Westneat’s column on homelessness in last Sunday’s Seattle Times, ends with the phrase, “the Limits of the Liberal Dream.” Its message is that the homelessness problem cannot be solved unless cities have the authority to sweep away homeless encampments.

The column hit a nerve. As I write, the Times has posted 1,347 reader responses. People here care about this. Most of them, it seems, are sick of the encampments.

The news “hook” of the column was the news that Seattle and other West Coast jurisdictions were asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn two appeals-court rulings that have effectively stopped the sweeps. This was an important local story, and it was almost a week old and hardly covered by the local paper. Seattle’s petition was announced Monday, September 25. The Times “covered” it in Wednesday’s paper with a story from the New York Times that listed Seattle once, in the fifth paragraph. Not until Westneat’s column of the following Sunday did our local paper treat this as a story of local importance.

In announcing the petition, Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison said that “among our top moral priorities” should be helping “the unhoused move into permanent housing.” But that to do this, she said, the Supreme Court needs to restore the authority that the Ninth Circuit stripped away in what’s known generically as the Boise decision.

The petition was not only in the name of Seattle, but also the International Municipal Lawyers Association, the National League of Cities, the National Association of Counties, and the cities of Albuquerque, Anchorage, Colorado Springs, Henderson, Las Vegas, Milwaukee, Providence, Redondo Beach, St. Paul, San Bernardino, San Diego, Spokane, and Tacoma. And the first name on that petition was Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison, who had approved the text.

Davison’s petition is one of 25 on the Supreme Court website urging the Court to overturn the Boise rulings of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The briefs describe the encampments’ messiness, unhealthiness, and risk. For example, the petition from the Washington State Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs says that during the first part of 2022, 42 percent of the shots-fired calls in Seattle were from homeless encampments. It also noted outbreaks of group A streptococcus and shigella infections in the camps.

From San Francisco comes a petition from business associations including the chamber of commerce: “In many parts of the [San Francisco], it is impossible to walk down the sidewalk or enter buildings because of homeless encampments—collections of tents and other personal belongings where homeless people congregate to live and sleep. Encampments are frequently sites of drug use and violence, endangering both passersby and homeless people themselves… Sidewalks, streets, and other public spaces in many parts of the City are littered with an array of tents, tarps, boxes, shopping carts, cooking gear, trash heaps, spoiled food, suitcases…”

The petition by the City of San Francisco and Mayor London Breed skips the graphic descriptions. It is properly progressive, saying the city wants to deal with homelessness in a compassionate way. But it says the city needs to enforce laws “against persons sitting, sleeping, or lying” in at least some public spaces, some of the time, and that under the 9th Circuit’s rulings, it can’t.

The first of the two rulings the high court is being asked to overrule is Martin v. City of Boise (2019). In Martin, the Ninth Circuit ruled that Boise police could not stop a person from sleeping or camping on public property unless the person had “access to adequate temporary shelter.” In the second ruling, Johnson v. Grants Pass (2022), the Ninth Circuit ruled that Grants Pass had to allow all homeless persons in the Oregon town to camp on public property unless it had adequate shelter beds for all 600 of them.

The Martin ruling applies only to the involuntarily homeless. How would a city employee decide who is voluntary and who isn’t? By offering a shelter bed? They did that, yet in Seattle offers of shelter were declined 52 percent of the time, according to a 2021 study cited in Ann Davison’s petition. Many homeless people didn’t want to be in a shelter — perhaps because of lack of privacy, fear of theft, or because they didn’t like the rules. In Portland, between May 2022 and July 2023, officials said homeless persons were offered shelter beds 3,399 times and refused the offers 2,560 times — 75 percent of the time.

These numbers sound precise but are not. San Francisco explains: “Some unhoused people work with outreach workers to complete housing assessments, some refuse to engage at all, and some do not even provide their names. Others sometimes may be under the influence of substances and unable to interact with workers.”

Under Martin, if you are homeless voluntarily, the city can eject you from the park. But if the reason you are homeless is that you don’t have a job, and you don’t have a job because you’re too stoned to be of value to an employer, then maybe the city has to offer you a shelter bed or let you set up housekeeping on the sidewalk.

Martin implied that local authorities would judge whether each individual was voluntary or involuntary. That didn’t work too well. Johnson simplified it. Under Johnson, all campers are assumed to be engaging in an “activity they cannot avoid,” and are therefore involuntary. Under Johnson, the authorities must be able to accommodate all the homeless with adequate shelter beds (whatever “adequate” means) before it can clear any of them out.

The city doesn’t have to own the shelters, but if the shelter has a “mandatory religious focus,” it doesn’t count. (So much for you, Christians!)

In their petitions to the Court, the cities complain loudly of how much money they are having to spend. Over the past several years, one petition says, Seattle has spent nearly a billion dollars. San Francisco says it spent $672 million in the past fiscal year alone. Says the petition of that city’s mayor: “San Francisco would need an additional $1.45 billion to shelter everyone… This expenditure would total more than a third of San Francisco’s general fund budget.” That doesn’t count the spending on mental health, substance abuse and permanent shelter.

The Ninth Circuit based its two decisions on the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits “cruel and unusual punishments.” The phrase goes back to the law of England in the late 1600s, when it was used to ban the practice of disemboweling, a punishment shown (sort of) at the end of the movie Braveheart.

What’s considered “cruel and unusual” changes over the centuries, and many legal authorities have argued that the Supreme Court ought to throw out the death penalty as cruel and unusual. It hasn’t done that, but the more progressive Ninth Circuit now protects urban campers from the “cruel and unusual punishment” of a police sweep. In effect, campers have been granted a constitutional right to build cardboard-and-tarp shacks on public property, though banning that practice is arguably neither cruel nor unusual nor a punishment.

Of course the “liberal dream” was never really that the down-and-out should live in tents, shacks, and rickety motorhomes. The dream is of permanent housing. Many of the petitioning organizations at the Supreme Court share that dream, including the City of Seattle. The platform of the Washington State Democratic Party declares, “Housing is a human right.” It goes on to say, “It is the right and proper role of the government to provide permanent stable housing to people experiencing housing insecurity or are under-housed.”

If “housing as a human right” means free housing for everyone who can’t pay, for whatever reason they can’t pay, local governments have a steep fiscal mountain to climb. And further, if the unhoused are free to decline the offer of free shelter and continue camping on the sidewalks and in the parks, that implies that any “permanent stable housing” will have to be provided to them on their terms.


Bruce Ramsey
Bruce Ramsey
Bruce Ramsey was a business reporter and columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in the 1980s and 1990s and from 2000 to his retirement in 2013 was an editorial writer and columnist for the Seattle Times. He is the author of The Panic of 1893: The Untold Story of Washington State’s first Depression, and is at work on a history of Seattle in the 1930s. He lives in Seattle with his wife, Anne.


  1. My only question is why Portland isn’t front and. center in this effort to re-define homelessness so that any offer of shelter will fill the bill and declining is not acceptable. We must reclaim our cities or accept them as hell holes. Multnomah County needs to redirect some of the endless stream of cash voters have provided for the homeless cause and put it into law enforcement. No one should be left on the street, but no one should be able to refuse an offer for shelter.

  2. Maybe we don’t know how to fix it but we do know citizens have rights also since they pay for the cities, counties and states.
    Folks should be able to move freely throughout the areas without facing the obstacles of garbage ect. and by those refusing help and choosing the streets as their homes. Compassion and common sense should be equal.

  3. As a blind pedestrian, I depend on public sidewalks that are clear, clean and predictable (no surprise obstructions). It’s frightening to suddenly find myself in the middle of an encampment with tents and garbage and human feces all over the place. It’s also frightening to consider what an easy target I’d be for someone desperate for cash or valuable goods to feed their addiction. I think it’s a complete and utter travesty, allowing people to live in all that filth and squalor, and acting as if “homeless by choice” is a viable option when it infringes on the public right of way. It’s cruel and unusual punishment to obliterate the only right of way people like me have (people who don’t drive). It’s cruel and unusual punishment to devalue close business or devalue homes that people have poured their time and soul into. It’s cruel to take a beautiful place like Seattle and render it unsafe, unsanitary and unusable for the people who invest in it. Real estate is too expensive in west coast cities to dole out as a “free” resource (practically speaking). For a billion dollars, Seattle could have purchased actual homes in the midwest and rust belt and deeded them to the unhomed free and clear. I can’t afford a house on Queen Anne or Laurelhurst. Sometimes, you just don’t get what you want, and you have to make adjustments to survive. I’m not sure why it’s so important that we enable street camping to the detriment of our beautiful city. I hope SCOTUS empowers cities to intervene. A society should have rules and standards, and if people want to live in Seattle, they should do so under the cities terms for basic sanitation and safety.

    • S. Viola — It’s despicable that you should have to experience real fear simply going about your everyday life. Sidewalk homelessness IS a choice. The unhoused families, struggling seniors, kids who aged out of foster care — are NOT the ones camped out on the street. But even in those cases, I agree completely, that real estate is simply too prohibitively expensive to dole out as if it were a free resource, open to all who want it. And yet, Seattle voters authorized a billion-dollar levy to build still more affordable housing. I’m tapped out. I simply will not pay greater property taxes to accommodate people who demand to live in one of the U.S.,’s most expensive cities. Seattle behaves as if homeowners are an endless resource — punish the ‘landlords’ who dare try to evict a tenant who won’t pay … and come to us again and again with more taxes to build more housing.

  4. Nothing will change until addicted homeless are compelled to enter supported housing. This can happen if the involuntary commitment act is amended to include
    “inability to care for one’s self.”


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