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High court stakes: Can homeless refuse a shelter bed & sleep/camp where they want?
bank homeless
One of the five homeless “camping” at the Bank of Stockton on North Main Street in Manteca on Sunday near the drive-up and walk-up ATMs. In the previous week, on more than one occasion the homeless have been “camping” near the drive-thru lane when people have gone to use it at night.

The United States Supreme Court is about to weigh-in on what is arguably a linchpin issue in efforts of Manteca as well as jurisdictions throughout California and eight other states in dealing with homeless issues.

And when the high court is done, it could end up establishing a legal precedent that has been the law of the 9th District Court as the law of the land.

The Supreme Court will review Johnson v. The City of Grants Pass, Oregon.

And while there are other issues, the main question is whether what Manteca — and virtually every other city in nine states — has done to comply with a 2018 Martin v. Boise, Idaho, ruling by the 9th District .

The question?

Is it legal for Manteca, and other cities, to limit where the homeless can sleep or camp on public property and restrict the hours they do so?

Such restrictions have been used since the 2018 decision was imposed at the 9th District level and the Supreme Court a year later refused to review.

Manteca was one of the cities at the time that petitioned as a friend of the court to have the Boise case ruled on by the nation’s highest court, but to no avail.

Manteca’s goal — and that of 40 plus other cities — was to have the Boise ruling overturned.

You will be hearing a lot about the 8th Amendment as well as “cruel and unusual punishment” in the coming months as the high court hears arguments and makes a ruling.

The Boise ruling basically said the homeless can’t be forced to move on or be subject to criminal prosecution if there is no available bed in a shelter for them to use.

It did not specifically address a city’s ability to restrict where they can sleep or camp nor address the hours it could be allowed.

What is in place in cities like Manteca is the result of general interpretation of the ruling.

The Grants Pass case essentially challenged a city’s ability to do both.

If the appellate court in the Grants Pass stands, if Manteca Police were to inform a homeless person camping on public property there was a shelter bed available, the homeless can refuse and not be subject to arrest, citation, or be forced to move.

There are three ways the high court can go.

They could uphold the 9th District court’s Grants Pass ruling.

That would mean the strategy of forcing homeless to move or be jailed if they refuse to take advantage of an available bed would be illegal.

In doing so, the homeless would essentially be affirmed as a protected class that can’t face criminal consequences for being homeless regardless of an available option to being unsheltered.

For all practical purposes, that means they can refuse to use an available bed in a shelter. And depending upon whether reasonable carve outs are allowed, could basically sleep or camp wherever they wanted on public property unless it is in areas where everyone is prevented from doing so.

The high court could overturn it.

That would mean the course Manteca and other jurisdictions are on to address and minimize the homeless problem is constitutional.

There is clearly more to it than that, but that is the basic thrust.

Or the high court could remand the case back to a lower court for reconsideration.

Manteca allows “sleeping” by anyone from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. on public sidewalks, in vehicles parked on the street, etc.

Some of that — such as sleeping in vehicles on the streets — is backed up to a degree by state law.

That is not a blanket allowance by any means.

There are conflicting interests than come into play such as safe public passage and Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.

It is why sleeping or camping on sidewalks has been allowed for everyone if the sidewalk is 6 feet or wider.

By default, that eliminates almost all residential areas that predominately have sidewalks 3 to 4 feet wide.

The city has been careful to keep exceptions to a minimum.

It is illegal, under a city ordinance, for homeless (as well as everyone else) to sleep or encamp at the Manteca Transit Center or the Moffat Community Center that serves as the Manteca VFW hall.

Since the city prohibits the use of parks basically overnight by anyone, the homeless are precluded from sleeping in them.

It applies to the Tidewater Bikeway that is part of the city’s park system and is posted as being closed to all from sundown to sunrise.

Clearly, no one is allowed to sleep or camp inside fenced or secured areas whether it is an outside city facility or building.

That means there is nothing stopping the homeless from setting up shop, or sleeping at places such as the Civic Center grounds, vacant city-owned parcels such as one on Atherton Drive next to a parcel by Living Spaces the City Council is considering buying for $2.2 million, or in front of the animal shelter’s doors, among some examples.

Sleeping/camping in streets per se outside of a vehicle is clearly not allowed under general public safety rules.

Anyone betting the high court will deep-six the “available shelter bed” qualifier for jurisdictions to be able to essentially make it illegal for the unsheltered to be free range homeless when it comes to public property should be prepared to lose money.

But then again, it could happen.

If it did, the homeless would become the United States’ version of the sacred cow.

And it wouldn’t just be in the 9th District states of California, Arizona, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Hawaii, and Alaska, but in every state.

One thing is for certain based on a high court either upholding the appeal or denying it: Whichever way the jurists rule, there will be a national standard for dealing with the homeless.

That means those in other states that believe the homeless situation is out of control in the West will be able to join California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, and Arizona in the same rabbit’s hole.

And unless you want chaos and a descent into homeless hell, keep your fingers crossed that the “available shelter bed” strategy is kept intact to allow jurisdictions to essentially enforce anti-camping laws that make sleeping or camping in various public places illegal whether it is by those that are sheltered or those that are unsheltered.

This column is the opinion of editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinions of The Bulletin or 209 Multimedia. He can be reached at