Aberdeen addressing homelessness following Supreme Court decision

The City of Aberdeen is taking further steps to address concerns regarding the homeless population within city limits following the recent Supreme Court ruling on Grants Pass v. Johnson that clarified that the enforcement of generally applicable laws regulating camping on public property do not constitute “cruel and unusual punishment” prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.

This reversed a 2019 United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit opinion that limited the ability of cities within the West Coast to penalize public camping within cities if adequate and readily available shelter beds were unavailable. That decision has been cited since as a reason for growing homeless encampments within Aberdeen, Olympia, Seattle, and elsewhere within the court’s jurisdiction.

In the Supreme Court opinion, delivered by Justice Neil Gorsuch he stated, “Many cities across the American West face a homelessness crisis. The causes are varied and complex, the appropriate public policy responses perhaps no less so.”

In the majority opinion, Justice Gorsuch added “As the number and size of these encampments have grown, so have the challenges they can pose for the homeless and others.”

At their meeting on Wednesday, the Aberdeen City Council passed the first readings of two ordinances that make changes to their municipal code that allow for the enforcement of public camping laws, striking language that is currently followed. 

In one change to their published public camping code, the council voted to remove certain definitions, broaden the intended locations of the law, and remove restrictions on law enforcement”. By removing AMC 12.46.045 in its entirety, it eliminated verbiage that prohibited law enforcement from enforcing prohibitions when there is no available overnight shelter available.

In the second set of changes it updates the municipal code to adjust rules regarding camping within vehicles that the city stated were listed in different chapters, but with different penalties associated, creating a challenge for consistent enforcement. 

City Administrator Ruth Clemens noted that these changes do not criminalize homelessness, with allowances for certain activities, and it does not do away with the local sit-lie law. The changes would allow local law enforcement to enforce rules already in place.

The city has been clearing the current largest homeless encampment, removing any items outside of tents, including shopping carts, propane tanks, and vacant tents, and informing the current residents of the updated rules.

The final cleanup of the encampment under the Chehalis River Bridge is scheduled for August 7.

The first readings of the ordinances were passed unanimously. If approved in future meetings the changes would take effect immediately.