The city of Oakland’s plan to close a homeless camp on a city-owned property doesn’t violate the 8th and 14th Amendment rights of the camp’s residents, a federal judge ruled today.
The controversy about the camp, called “Housing and Dignity Village” by its residents, began on October 27 when a group of activists moved onto the city property in deep East Oakland. The activists said they were establishing a safe and sober place primarily for women and children. They criticized the city for not having enough shelter beds for Oakland’s thousands of unsheltered homeless people.
The city responded by notifying the campers that they were trespassing and that the camp would be closed by Nov. 10.
But the camp’s residents filed a lawsuit in federal court contending that the city’s efforts to evict them amounted to cruel and unusual punishment and a violation of their due process rights.
On Nov. 9, U.S. District Judge Haywood Gilliam issued a temporary restraining order stopping the city from carrying out the camp closure. The hearing considering a preliminary injunction, which would have held off an eviction for much longer, was held on Monday in Oakland.
In arguing for the preliminary injunction, the homeless camp residents relied heavily on a recent ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in the Martin v. Boise case, which found that “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.” Judges in that case also found that “as long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.”
In other words, a city that has too few shelter beds for the total number of homeless people on its streets can’t enforce laws against sleeping outdoors and similar activities. The residents of Housing and Dignity Village argued that this logic extended to their camp on city-owned property.
But U.S. District Judge Haywood Gilliam said Martin v. Boise doesn’t apply to the case of Oakland’s Housing and Dignity Village for several reasons.
“Martin does not establish a constitutional right to occupy public property indefinitely,” Gilliam wrote in his decision.
“There is available shelter,” Oakland Deputy City Attorney Jamilah Jefferson argued at Monday’s hearing. “Plaintiffs are just not availing themselves of it.”
Gilliam accepted the city’s arguments that it will offer the 13 homeless people at the camp shelter spaces as it closes the un-permitted campsite.
Gilliam also accepted the city’s argument that by shuttering the camp, it isn’t imposing any criminal penalties on the homeless residents. The campers argued the opposite, saying that the order to leave the property would ultimately be enforced with the threat of arrest and citation for trespassing, therefore they were being criminalized due to their homeless condition.
Plaintiffs further argued that the city-owned lot they occupied has been vacant for over ten years and is akin to a public park. Gilliam rejected the notion, saying in court that the city’s intended use of the lot is irrelevant.
As to why they believed their eviction would also be a violation of the 14th Amendment, the camp residents argued that the city has sometimes confiscated and thrown away people’s property when closing camps.
But Gilliam found that Oakland’s existing policies and procedures are fair. The city notifies homeless camp residents at least 72 hours in advance of closing a site, and any belongings left behind that are not obviously trash or hazards are stored by the city so owners can recover them.
Joshua Piovia-Scott, an attorney representing the homeless camp residents, argued in court hearing on Monday that while the city says it has adequate policies to notify campers about closures, and to store left behind belongings, it doesn’t always do this. “Our evidence is what actually happens on the street,” he told the judge.
In his decision, Gilliam deferred to the city in making the “difficult decisions it judges to be in the best interests of all its residents.”
“There is no easy solution to this extraordinarily complex challenge,” he said.
Gilliam’s ruling isn’t the end of the case, but it does mean the camp will be closed.