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After Ninth District Ruling, Santa Rosa Reassess Homeless Enforcement Protocols

Nov 1, 2018
by Will Carruthers

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In the wake of a federal court ruling, Santa Rosa and Sonoma County reviewed the laws city employees cite when moving people from homeless encampments, according to Santa Rosa's City Attorney.

On Sept. 4, a judge in San Francisco’s Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the city of Boise’s laws punishing homeless people for sleeping on the street were “cruel and unusual.”

The ruling found that cities and states may not pass laws that “criminalize conduct that is an unavoidable consequence of being homeless -- namely sitting, lying or sleeping on the streets” when there are not enough reasonable alternatives to shelter the people being punished.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling, which covers states along the west coast including California, Oregon and Washington, has caused cities throughout the region to reassess the laws they use to justify moving, fining or arresting people living on the streets.

In the past year, homeless advocates and law enforcement in Sonoma County have disagreed over the legality of the city’s enforcement actions, resulting in a lawsuit between local homeless advocates and the county which is currently in settlement proceedings.

The Boise case could push local governments to define some crucial terms, according to Alicia Roman, a Santa Rosa attorney and homeless advocate.

Mainly, law enforcement must offer “adequate temporary shelter” that is appropriate for a person being cited or asked to leave an area.

“For me, that means ‘adequate shelter for their needs,’” Roman said.

The ruling requires the city to offer reasonable accommodations for people unwilling or unable to stay at a large group shelter or in a shelter with religious requirements.

For example, offering a hotel voucher for one night would not constitute a reasonable shelter because of the amount of effort required to move their belongings in and out of the hotel for such a short amount of time, Roman said.

Santa Rosa City Attorney Sue Gallagher says that the city and county are constantly working to stay up to date with rulings that apply to the region, including the Martin vs. City of Boise case.

“We’ve always ensured that shelter beds are available before we ask people to move,” Gallagher said, adding that the city and county offer shelter based on different needs.

If an individual has a documented disability that makes them unable to stay in a general room at a shelter, they may be offered one of the few separate rooms at the Sam Jones Shelter or a room at the Palms Inn, Gallagher said.

Meanwhile, finding long-term housing options for the county’s homeless remains an elusive goal.

The county’s 2018 Homeless Census found that 64 percent of the county’s 2,996 homeless residents were considered unsheltered, meaning that they are not staying in an emergency shelter or transitional home.

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