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Boise, Idaho, Abandons Fight To Clear Homeless Encampments


The city of Boise, Idaho, has decided to abandon its more than decade-long legal fight to clear homeless encampments. The settlement reached yesterday has implications across the West Coast, which has long been the epicenter of the nation's homelessness crisis. Here's NPR's Kirk Siegler.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: More than 12 years ago, several homeless people sued the city of Boise for giving them dozens of tickets for sleeping outside, even when there weren't adequate beds available in local shelters here. Now, Boise fought the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was joined by many West Coast cities in arguing they need broad authority to prevent the spread of homeless encampments. But late in 2019, the Supreme Court declined to hear Boise's latest appeal. Now, apparently acknowledging it likely wouldn't prevail in lower courts that already ruled the ticketing unconstitutional, Boise has decided to end the fight. The city is settling the lawsuit and pledging to put more than a million dollars toward housing and support services this year alone.

ERIC TARS: So the city is going to decrease the number of encampments in Boise permanently by housing people rather than by arresting them for simply trying to survive, which only prolongs their homelessness.

SIEGLER: Eric Tars is legal director at the National Homelessness Law Center, which helped the plaintiffs in the case. He says the settlement shows that cities should follow Boise's lead and build more housing, instead of putting police on the front lines of the crisis.

TARS: The courts have said no, you can't balance your failure to create adequate housing policy on the backs of the victims of that very failure.

SIEGLER: Legal experts say there's been scattershot compliance with the ruling outside Boise, a relatively affluent, mid-sized city. Some city leaders in California, where there's been an explosion in homelessness since the recession, say they need to be able to control encampments because they threaten public health and safety. Professor Michael Cousineau at the University of Southern California says what mostly happens is the police will clear a tent city. Then people just move somewhere else a few days later.

MICHAEL COUSINEAU: This is a game-changer, in the sense that it's going to say to cities and counties, all right, now you're going to have to be serious about not just taking down these encampments and moving people around but actually getting them into housing.

SIEGLER: With the pandemic, there's now more money available for them to start doing that. The Biden administration says it will fully reimburse cities for the costs of putting their unhoused residents in local hotels. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Boise.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEAVV'S "PAVED PATHS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.