A path forward for cleaning up California’s cities?

Californians are fed up with watching homeless encampments take over their streets. Vast swaths of once-beautiful cities are now overrun, with violent crime skyrocketing and needles and feces littering the sidewalks. Local leaders aren’t helping—in fact, their refusal to enforce the law leaves law-abiding citizens to clean up the mess their own government created. 

But does good news from the desert mean hope is on the horizon? Does a Phoenix judge’s evisceration of liberal-run cities’ failure to adequately address homelessness show a path forward for California? 

Like their counterparts in California, residents and business owners in downtown Phoenix’s homeless “Zone” have dealt with unimaginable hardships as one of the nation’s largest homeless encampments continues to expand. Murder, rape, arson, theft, public drug use, and prostitution are common occurrences. It’s not fair to business owners who have found dead bodies on their property and been forced to seal their windows and doors to keep out urine and feces. Nor is it fair to the homeless themselves, who face a hazardous environment riddled with violent crime and human waste.

Meanwhile, city leaders have handled the crisis the same way as officials in California: with uncontrollable spending and with big talk. The result: criminals roam free because city officials won’t enforce the law, and the crisis spirals. 

After a group of property and business owners sued the city of Phoenix over its failure to protect their rights, Judge Scott Blaney issued a preliminary ruling blaming the city for maintaining The Zone and ordering officials to clean up the encampment. Notably, the ruling dismantled the city’s excuse for failing to act—that a 2019 Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals decision in Martin v. City of Boise prohibits cities from enforcing anti-public camping laws against “involuntarily homeless” people. 

California leaders—and officials in other West Coast cities under the Ninth Circuit’s jurisdiction—have used that very same excuse. But enforcing the law is not the same thing as criminalizing homelessness, which under the Martin ruling violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. And many homeless people choose to live in encampments where they can continue using drugs or drinking alcohol rather than go to a shelter. 

City governments owe their citizens a duty to ensure crimes like murder, assault, and public urination, defecation, and drug use don’t go unchecked. In fact, the Martin ruling does not “preclude municipalities from abating a nuisance, arresting violent offenders, enforcing the laws against drugs and violence, or enforcing laws against biohazards and pollution of public waters, etc.,” Blaney wrote in his ruling. 

The ruling provides hope not just for Phoenix, but for cities in California and other states too. For too long, liberal leaders have used the Martin ruling as an excuse to allow rampant crime and homelessness to take over neighborhoods. But no longer.

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“These cities have basically acquiesced to the advocates who claim that the Ninth Circuit decision precludes basically doing anything to the unsheltered population,” Ilan Wurman, a constitutional law professor and attorney representing the property and business owners suing the city of Phoenix, told National Review. “And what we’ve shown is, that’s not the case, that there are numerous laws that the cities can enforce and can comply with, while also being in compliance with the Ninth Circuit decision.”

California cities can no longer claim that their hands are tied and that law-abiding citizens are on their own. They have no obligation to allow their communities to be overrun by illegal activity. Rather, leaders have an obligation to enforce the law and protect the rights of every individual they were elected to represent. 

The Phoenix court ruling sends a message to all West Coast cities that have failed to address the growing homelessness crisis: no more excuses. It’s time to take our cities and streets back. 

Austin VanDerHeyden is the Municipal Affairs Liaison at the Goldwater Institute, which has filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of business and property owners suing the city of Phoenix for maintaining The Zone.

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