Anchorage has joined a long list of organizations and local governments petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to hear a case that challenges a precedent on a key homelessness issue: when and how a city can clear camps.
Mayor Dave Bronson announced the move at a news conference on Tuesday.
“Last week, the Municipality of Anchorage at my direction joined the amicus brief … to ask the Supreme Court to nullify the Ninth Circuit Court ruling so cities can effectively address their homelessness crises,” Bronson said.
Amicus briefs are a way for third parties to formally weigh in on court cases. This particular case stems from Grants Pass, Oregon, trying to enforce a local ordinance dealing with homeless campers. The city was sued over it and lost. Grants Pass appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and lost.
That means the Ninth Circuit precedent set in a case called Martin v. Boise in 2018 is still the law in Alaska and eight other western states: It is unconstitutional to punish homeless people for camping in public spaces when they have nowhere else to go. There are some exceptions, but for Anchorage, that means the city can’t clear homeless camps if shelter spaces are full. Anchorage’s shelters have been full since the city shut down its winter emergency shelter in the Sullivan Arena in the spring.
Meghan Barker with the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska said these briefs are a pretty common move.
“We don’t think it’s very significant,” she said. “Nothing, from our perspective, has changed.”
Barker said the ACLU maintains that the municipality has a legal and moral obligation to develop meaningful solutions to homelessness.
The amicus brief Anchorage joined argues that the Ninth Circuit’s decisions were “flawed in theory and unworkable in practice.” It says they force local governments to “build more shelter or surrender public spaces.”
Bronson has previously said that the Martin v. Boise decision created problems, but “was not that bad.” On political blogger Jeff Landfield’s podcast in July, Bronson said he wouldn’t fight it.
“I’m not gonna fight Martin versus Boise,” he said. “But I don’t think principally we ever want to get to the point where we punish people for being homeless. But we do need to compel them to do what’s best for them – and I don’t think that’s punishment, whatsoever – and get them into treatment.”
Anchorage officials are in the process of standing up the city’s winter shelter plan, which relies on reserving hundreds of hotel beds and paying some nonprofits to provide extra space. The city is also exploring setting up a temporary winter shelter. They hope to bring all of the elements online in October, clear camps and move Anchorage’s entire unsheltered population indoors.