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Puyallup Herald

Costly lawsuits could follow restrictions on homeless, attorney warns Puyallup, other cities


The city of Puyallup doesn’t have any ordinances that criminalize the homeless for sleeping or resting in public spaces. It’d be wise not to create any, says one attorney.

Tristia Bauman visited the city Monday to inform those experiencing homelessness of their rights to sleep or rest in public spaces. Bauman is an attorney for one of the people suing Puyallup over sweeps of homeless camps that allegedly destroyed personal belongings.

Her visit came at a time when Puyallup leaders are looking closely at passing policy that affects the homeless, including a proposal that would restrict where new service providers could operate.

At a meeting held at First Christian Church, Bauman discussed a recent ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Ruling in a case called Martin v. City of Boise, the court ruled that municipalities cannot criminalize life-sustaining activities such as sleeping, eating or resting in public places when there is no shelter space available or accessible.

The ruling applies to cities in Washington state, including Puyallup, where overnight shelter is available five months of the year.

Bauman, who works for the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, warned local cities against policies that restrict where homeless people can be on public property.

“Anything that reduces the amount of public spaces where people can be is a bad policy idea after Martin,” Bauman said. “It makes cities more vulnerable to litigation because it makes it more likely that they’re going to be violating people’s right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.”

One audience member brought up a recently proposed ordinance by the city of Puyallup that addresses zoning for homeless-serving facilities within city limits.

The ordinance, which would restrict where homeless service providers could build to 18 parcels in the northwest corner of the city, is due for second reading on Oct. 2.

While Bauman said she’s not familiar with the details of Puyallup’s proposed zoning ordinance, she recommended that local cities expand alternatives to sleeping on the streets rather than reduce them.

“While a zoning ordinance itself would not make a city liable under Martin v. City of Boise, it could limit the number of options available to unhoused people in Puyallup for resting,” Bauman said. “And, when a person lacks other options, they cannot be constitutionally punished for sleeping/resting in public space. For this, and many other reasons, cities are wise to find ways to expand — not reduce — alternatives to sleeping on the street.”

Bauman said later that the Law Center has no immediate plans to sue Puyallup again.

City attorney Joseph Beck said the Martin v. Boise ruling has no direct impact on the city of Puyallup, which does not have a “no-camping” ordinance like the city of Boise.

“We don’t have the same kind of facts. We don’t have the same kind of codes, the same kind of enforcement policies,” Beck said. “They’re factually distinguishable.”

Beck added that the city is already in compliance with the ruling.

“The Ninth Circuit decision was not a surprise, and we have been operating and advising the city in compliance with that decision for the last two years,” he said.

Beck said city officials cannot comment on the idea of potential litigation surrounding the zoning ordinance, since it has not yet been officially adopted by Puyallup City Council.

Allison Needles: 253-597-8507, @herald_allison
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