Mark Hennessy and Susan Pappas roll up their sleeping bags and hide them in the bushes. It’s a dusty summer morning along the Boise River Greenbelt, and it’s legal for them to be here now. But if there’s evidence they slept on the riverbank last night, they’re in trouble.
Suddenly, they see a bike cop on his morning rounds. They try to look inconspicuous.
“What’s up, guys?” says Boise police Sgt. Craig Nixon.
They say they’re fishing; luckily, Hennessy has a rod. Pappas, at least, is safe from a criminal citation, because the women’s shelter was full. But Hennessy has been ticketed before, including recently for having a jar of pickles (no glass in public parks).
A few years ago, this conversation could have gone differently: Boise police issued almost 300 citations for camping in a public place in 2015, but just 39 last year. Nixon let the couple go.
Things have changed here — and across the West — because of a lawsuit that started nearby. Seven homeless people took Boise to court, and a year ago this week, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a landmark ruling. It said that if a city doesn’t have enough shelter beds available, enforcing a camping ban like Boise’s violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Boise is contesting the ruling, which could end up before the Supreme Court. But for now, the ruling has roiled politics and upended policies across the nine states in the Ninth Circuit’s jurisdiction, from Arizona to Alaska.