The little-understood reason why clearing homeless encampments became harder in California than most other states

The little-understood reason why clearing homeless encampments became harder in California than most other states

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Work crews clean up personal belongings and trash at a homeless encampment under the 405 Freeway in Inglewood.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)


PUBLISHED DEC. 18, 2023 UPDATED DEC. 19, 2023 2:12 PM PT

WASHINGTON —  Blocks from the White House, McPherson Square is a quiet, grassy downtown park where Washingtonians lunch and pigeons perch atop a statue of a Civil War general killed fighting the Confederacy.

A year ago, it became the city’s largest homeless encampment, covered by tents and virtually off-limits to pedestrians.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser and the National Park Service have strictly enforced laws against camping on sidewalks and in parks. After posting a two-week notice, police fenced off the area and all tents were removed.

Homeless advocates protested and carried signs saying “Shame” and “Stop the evictions.” Two people who refused to leave were handcuffed and taken away. But the fight ended there and today the square remains clear.

It’s a scene that has played out repeatedly across the country as homeless rates surge and public officials grapple with how to address the housing shortage.

It also illustrates a stark difference in the way anti-camping ordinances are being enforced from city to city and state to state.

In cities such as Washington and much of the rest of the nation, officials are relatively free to enforce local laws to remove homeless encampments.

But thanks to a series of rulings by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, public officials in California and eight other Western states face greater scrutiny and legal challenges when they move to clear encampments or relocate homeless people — even when the local laws are virtually the same as those used by cities outside the 9th Circuit.

The appellate decisions established new rights for homeless people who need a place to sleep and limited the authority of police to relocate them.

But no other federal appellate court has followed the 9th Circuit’s legal reasoning and now the decisions are being challenged in the Supreme Court, which could take up the issue early next year.

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