Las Vegas, Henderson join effort to overturn prohibition of homeless encampment sweeps
Local ordinances have in recent years been adopted across the state limiting where people can shelter outdoors. Bills aimed at protecting the rights of people living without stable shelter have been gutted or have died during the legislative process. And now the two largest cities in Nevada are trying to overturn court decisions that said sweeping people from an encampment when there is no room at local shelters is “cruel and unusual.”
Late last month, the cities of Las Vegas and Henderson joined several Western jurisdictions in signing an amicus brief spearheaded by a Seattle attorney urging the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn previous rulings by the 9th U.S. Circuit of Appeals on Martin v. City of Boise and Johnson v. City of Grants Pass.
Sweeps often involve local police taking the tents and personal belongings of unhoused people who are staying in parks or other public places, with jurisdictions justifying those actions by questioning the safety of encampment campfires and citing health issues related to discarding human waste. Usually, at the crux of the debate over sweeps is whether there is a suitable alternative place for displaced people to go.
Local jurisdictions say they want clarity in the law about the legality of sweeps that clean up encampments, but supporters of the rulings argue that local governments are looking for ways to use “police and handcuffs and jail cells as a solution to involuntary unsheltered homelessness.”
“All Martin v. Boise stands for is the principle that it is ‘cruel and unusual’ — so unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment … to punish people for existing if they have nowhere else to exist,” William Knight, the Phoenix-based decriminalization program director for the National Homelessness Law Center, told The Nevada Independent.
Where Nevada cities stand
City of Las Vegas spokesperson Jace Radke shared a statement about the city’s reasoning for signing the amicus brief.
“The city hopes the U.S. Supreme Court gives clarity and finality—either way—to how cities across the country can or cannot use their police powers to address this issue,” Radke wrote, adding that the city did not wish to provide further comment on ongoing litigation.
A City of Henderson spokesperson wrote in an email that the city signed onto the amicus brief because overturning these cases will allow Henderson “to be flexible in addressing unhoused issues as they emerge. The current legal framework restricts the solutions available to the City.”
The Henderson spokesperson also said the current legal system results in “judicial review of cities’ decisions about” what does or does not constitute a shelter, what property a city may restrict because it is unsuitable for habitation and “whether a city has properly written and is properly enforcing laws preventing someone from blocking a sidewalk.”
However, Knight said overturning these cases could bring more confusion to how cities can serve the unhoused population.
“I think if the court overturns this, that is going to inject a lot of lack of clarity,” he said. “First of all, cities are going to handle it differently.”
Local governments that are not signed on to the amicus brief have had mixed reactions to Las Vegas and Henderson aiming to overturn Martin v. City of Boise and Johnson v. City of Grants Pass.
At this time, the City of North Las Vegas has no plans to sign onto the amicus brief and “plans to continue our services-first approach, which we feel is in line with the most recent 9th Circuit Order in Coalition on Homelessness v. City and County of San Francisco,” spokeswoman Kathleen Richards told The Nevada Independent.
Coalition on Homelessness v. City and County of San Francisco is a case that decided people are not "involuntarily homeless" if they have declined a specific offer of available shelter or otherwise have access to such shelter or the means to obtain it.
The 9th Circuit decisions do not prevent cities from providing services, but do prohibit jurisdictions from forcibly removing someone from a location when there are no adequate shelters available for people to seek out, Knight said.
“That's something that is frustrating when you read these amicus briefs … they're making this into a false binary,” Knight said.
Though Reno and Washoe County officials said they have no plans to participate in the amicus brief, Reno spokesman Landon Miller said the city “is monitoring these legal proceedings and is committed to staying informed about the situation. We will evaluate the potential implications for our community should they arise.”
Sparks City Attorney Wes Duncan, who just participated in passing new city ordinances to restrict people from sleeping in their vehicles near the Truckee River, said these cases constrain local governments from enforcing laws related to “public health and safety issues.”
“Although the City of Sparks uses innovative approaches to connect the homeless to services while also enforcing the law, I fully support the efforts of states and western cities to overturn these cases and restore the power of local governments to combat homelessness in their communities,” Duncan wrote in a statement.
The case for upholding the rulings
Knight said he believes upholding Martin v. Boise and Johnson v. Grants Pass should be a bipartisan issue.
“These are … conservative principles too. This is about limited government. This is about fiscal responsibility. This is about civil rights,” Knight said.
The booking cost for a single arrest of one person for violating ordinances prohibiting laying or sleeping in a public place is more than more than $100, according to a Florida study published by The Homeless Voice.
Knight said an arrest record can also put up barriers for people seeking housing, creating a loop of homelessness. It is legal in Nevada for a landlord to discriminate against someone with a criminal record.
“The collateral consequences of it on the taxpayers are immense. The cost of incarcerating somebody on an annual basis is [significantly] more than the cost of providing short term and permanent supportive housing options to those who need it,” Knight said.
He said he wants people to remember empathy during this time.
“Right now, human beings, all Americans need to realize that the homeless community is not different from us. We're all far closer to living on the streets than we ever will be to being a billionaire,” Knight said.
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