The Argument Over Shelter Beds

Why is it important?

If you read the Spokesman or The Inlander or if you watched the video featured in my last post, you are aware that the number of beds available in homeless shelters is a contested issue. The City of Spokane mayor’s office might insist that if there are, for example, unoccupied beds at a given homeless shelter that it (the City) is within its rights to send its police and workers to clear a homeless encampment and throw the scant belonging of these people into an awaiting garbage truck. (Mind you, of course, the words used by the mayor’s office spokespeople to describe this action would not be so explicit.) You might also have heard arguments over what constitutes a “low barrier” bed. 

You would hardly know it based on news coverage, but this is a U.S. Constitutional issue, specifically, an issue grounded in the Bill of Rights. In 2018 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (covering eight western states) ruled in Martin v. Boise that:

…cities cannot prosecute people for sleeping on the streets if there is nowhere else for them to go, saying that violates the 8th Amendment and amounts to unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment. 


The city [Boise] later asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take up its appeal, but the court declined to hear it. 

In view of the Martin v. Boise decision, cities, particularly those in the western United States, are adjusting their camping ordinances (and their enforcement of older ordinances) to comply with the ruling. 

Absorb that. The Ninth Circuit ruled that, as a matter of personal right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment guaranteed by the Eighth Amendment to our Constitution, that a government cannot prosecute a person for camping on government property if there is no other appropriate shelter available—and the U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear and weigh in appeal from the City of Boise. If I understand how the courts work, the only way the Ninth Circuit could come to be overruled by the U.S. Supreme Court is if one of the other federal circuit courts were to be presented a similar case and that court were to issue a ruling contrary to Martin v. Boise. Then the U.S. Supreme Court would be called upon to break the tie.

When the City of Spokane mayor’s office (that is, the executive branch of city government, the branch of government that oversees law enforcement) claims that enough low barrier shelter beds are available to homeless people, the mayor is setting the stage to work around the U.S. Constitutional guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment of people simply trying to shelter themselves from the elements.

When, as happened during our recent cold snap, four hundred people show up seeking relief from the cold at the hastily offered space at the convention center while the mayor’s office claims there are 80-100 unoccupied, available beds at local shelters there is an important reality disconnect. Once again Shawn Vestal hits the nail on the head with “A jumble of numbers obscures the need on the street”. Please take the time to watch “The Night of the Unsheltered Homeless” on YouTube and share the link with others for more on the numbers and the City’s inhumanity. 

Martin v. Boise’s application of the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment of the unsheltered homeless should, in a just world, carry at least the same weight as those civil rights guaranteed by other amendments, like the 2nd, that are more often paraded around and defiantly waved. We would all do well to remember Martin v. Boise each time Mayor Woodward directs law enforcement to threaten homeless people who have no place to go with confiscation of their belongings.

Keep to the high ground,


P.S. Of course, nothing is inarguable, as this article title in the highly biased and right wing “Epoch Times” (owned and and run by the Falun Gong) demonstrates:

Politicians’ Dirty Secret: Martin v. Boise Doesn’t Prevent Cities From Enforcing Anti-Camping Ordinances in the Absence of Shelters

The article is hidden behind a paywall—and I refuse to support this rag.