News from the Top

US Supreme Court to hear homeless encampment case


Among the many roles place management leaders play in their work the most sensitive is that of diplomat: balancing the needs and interests of a diverse range of stakeholders in the public and private sectors, not to mention the public at large, takes an enormous amount of skill. It also requires a good deal of courage, knowing the choices and positions taken won’t please everybody.  

We are reminded of that every day by the challenges the homelessness crisis presents downtowns. Fostering vibrant and inclusive spaces for everyone requires balancing the needs of everyone, from business owners and residents to those suffering from a lack of shelter. With so many cities confronted by a lack of housing and support services, place management organizations have taken it upon themselves to get involved. That means deploying ambassador teams to work one-on-one with unsheltered people and coordinating with non-profits to find services. Sometimes, it means working with cities to address encampments that pose hazards to all.  

There are no easy solutions to these challenges. However, two court decisions on the West Coast have made it harder for cities to use the full array of municipal tools to deal with dangerous situations. Those decisions by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, Martin v. Boise and Johnson v. Grants Pass, hamstring the ability of cities to maintain safe public spaces by ruling that such actions constitute cruel and unusual punishment against unsheltered people. As a result, cities under the Circuit’s jurisdiction have had to abandon efforts to police streets and public spaces. Encampments have spread, fueling drug use, overdoses, human trafficking, property crimes, and violent assaults, the victims of which are primarily the very people the Ninth Circuit is intending to help.  

The U.S. Supreme Court has now agreed to review the Grants Pass decision, scheduling a hearing in April and a decision likely to come in June. This week, IDA, along with several BIDs and other stakeholders, filed an amicus (friend of the court) brief supporting the city of Grants Pass, asking the court to overturn the Ninth Circuit’s ruling. As we write in our brief to the Court, “in practical terms, the Martin and Grants Pass decisions have created a zone of immunity from enforcement of any quality-of-life laws whenever the subject is unhoused. The product of this judicial meddling has been an encampment explosion, a kibosh on public-realm enforcement, and a culture of fear around the use of enforcement to address the crisis. In the laboratory of democracy, this experiment has failed.” Our brief is backed by substantial research and data from BIDs around the country, providing a clear-eyed perspective to the Court on the real-world impacts of the two decisions.   

Submitting a brief to the Supreme Court is no small undertaking – and it puts our organization on public record on a contentious and divisive issue. However, for IDA’s Board, the decision to act was not a hard one: staying silent on an issue that poses enormous consequences for both our downtowns and the people who use them is simply not an option. Likewise, it is not an option for us to sit on the sidelines when policymakers at all levels of government make decisions about homelessness. That’s why IDA has been aggressive in advocating that the U.S. Congress provide more funding for programs that local organizations provide wrap-around services to those experiencing homelessness. (We also received some hopeful news this week on that front: congressional leaders agreed to increase funding for HUD’s Homeless Assistance Grant program, a request IDA was proud to join the major homelessness advocacy groups in the making.)  

As I worked with our members and outside counsel on preparing the brief, I realized that the balancing act IDA faced in speaking out on a contentious issue was not that different from the one BIDs face every day. We know our brief might not please everybody but hope it can be the catalyst for further dialogue on how we help everyone who is experiencing homelessness get the support they need, regardless of how the Supreme Court rules, the crisis in housing won’t go away. It will take more action, more political will, and more engagement with stakeholders to address this issue once and for all. As I said, staying on the sidelines is not an option. But I am honored to be a part of an industry that has the skills and willingness to take on the toughest of issues.