Court Rules that City-Erected Structure at a Municipal Airport is Not “Shelter”
Decision in Compliance with Martin v. City of Boise
The last few years have seen a fundamental shift in how municipalities can lawfully regulate camping on public property. The spark for this shift was Martin v. City of Boise, a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision that held the Eighth Amendment prohibits the imposition of criminal penalties for sitting, sleeping or lying outside on public property for homeless individuals who cannot obtain shelter. At the local level, Martin prohibits jurisdictions from prosecuting homeless individuals for involuntarily sitting, lying and sleeping in public when there are more homeless individuals in a jurisdiction than available shelter beds.
The Martin court characterized its decision as “narrow” and explained that it did not require municipalities to provide sufficient shelter for the homeless or allow anyone who wishes to sit, lie or sleep on the streets to do so at any time and at any place. The court added that a camping ordinance which applied “at particular times or in particular locations might well be constitutionally permissible.”
Complying with Martin often raises practical, political and legal questions. For municipalities, chief among such questions is: “What are we allowed to do?” Martin itself provides few clear answers. Consequently, municipalities are left to chart their own paths forward in response to the growing body of case law from lower courts. A recent example of such a case is Warren v. City of Chico, which is discussed in further detail below.
Chico’s Approach and the Court’s Decision
To set the stage, the Chico Municipal Code (like many other cities’ codes) prohibits camping on public property. As of April 2021, Chico had a total of 120 shelter beds in the city and an estimated homeless population of over 500 individuals. The City was sued by homeless individuals over enforcement of its camping ordinance. Shortly thereafter, the City constructed an “outdoor temporary shelter facility” at the municipal airport. According to the City, the structure had the capacity to house all of Chico’s homeless residents.
Among other things, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California addressed what constitutes “shelter” for purposes of Martin. The City argued that shelter is “a practically available space for persons who are unhoused to go on a given day that would enable a city … to enforce its anti-camping [ordinance].” While acknowledging that Martin did not directly answer this question, the court nonetheless rejected the City’s argument and concluded that it “does not pass the straight face test.”
The court then looked at various dictionary definitions for “shelter,” including definitions from Merriam-Webster (an establishment providing food and shelter as to the homeless); Cambridge English Dictionary (a building designed to give protection from bad weather, danger or attack); and Black’s Law Dictionary (a place of refuge providing safety from danger, attack or observation). From Martin, the court observed it “contemplates shelter will offer individuals a place to sleep indoors.”
Looking to the City’s airport site, the court noted that it was simply an asphalt tarmac without a roof, walls, water or electricity. The court characterized the site as an “open space with what amounts to a large umbrella for some shade” that “affords no real cover or protection to anyone.” As such, the court concluded that the airport site was not a “shelter” for purposes of Martin.
Given that the City of Chico had more homeless residents than available shelter beds, the court enjoined the City from imposing criminal penalties (such as arrests or fines) on homeless persons who violate the City’s camping ordinance.
Takeaways from Warren v. City of Chico
Takeaways from this case include the following:
- “Shelter” under Martin requires more than a structure that provides shade. While the court didn’t say that a roof, walls, water and electricity are required, the fact that the City of Chico’s site lacked all of those features was fatal to the City’s case.
- In some instances, applying Martin to the circumstances of a specific city can be quite straightforward. In Warren, Chico had 120 available shelter beds and over 500 homeless residents. Because the latter exceeded the former, the court held that Martin barred the City from enforcing its camping ordinance.
- A future court might be hostile to a city’s attempt to concentrate all camping in one designated location. In a footnote at the end of the Warren decision, the court disapproved of Chico’s attempt during oral argument to argue in the alternative that the airport tarmac represented the one place in the City where individuals could camp without being criminally prosecuted (à la Martin’s allowance for cities remaining able to prohibit camping at certain times or in certain locations). In dicta, the court observed that it was “unlikely” that concentrating all camping on an airport tarmac would be “a viable argument under Martin.”
Noteworthy Developments in Other Jurisdictions
The lack of clear guidance from Martin has resulted in municipalities regulating sitting, sleeping and lying in public through often quite different approaches. Two recent actions out of Los Angeles highlight this point. In July 2021, the City of Los Angeles adopted an ordinance that prohibits, among other things, sitting, sleeping and lying in public in a manner that obstructs a street, sidewalk or other public rights of way. In August 2021, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors prohibited homeless encampments in all Cal-Fire designated Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zones in unincorporated areas of the County. While these approaches are arguably on firmer footing under Martin (as regulations applying only in certain places), it remains to be seen how a court applying a jurisdiction’s specific facts in a given case would ultimately decide.
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