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Montana cities weigh options after Supreme Court homelessness ruling

Unhoused people sleeping in Depot Park in downtown Kalispell, MT, August 1, 2023. A pedestrian walks past, wearing headphones and looking at his phone.
Aaron Bolton
Unhoused people sleeping in Depot Park in downtown Kalispell, MT, August 1, 2023.

The U.S. Supreme Court overturned a ruling on Friday that prevented cities from fining or jailing unhoused people for sleeping in public if the city didn’t have another option for them.

The ruling overturned a 2018 decision from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Cities in nine western states, including Montana, can now restrict people from camping or sleeping in public spaces even if they don’t have a bed at a shelter or another place to send them to.

Tonya Horn is the executive director of the Flathead Warming Center in Kalispell.

“It’s a misguided idea that eliminating where people can go will just make them go away, it’s not true,” said Horn

Kalispell last year passed ordinances that restricted people from putting up tents or other structures in public parks. Advocates worry cities could go even further by criminalizing sleeping or camping anywhere in public. David Carlson is the CEO of Disability Rights Montana.

“Having a criminal record makes getting a job and getting housing harder, not easier. They just gave the green light to start arresting people,” Carlson said.

It’s unclear what cities might do in response to the ruling. Bozeman’s city council is set to hold a public work session on whether to change its laws, but did not say it would impose more restrictions on sleeping in public.

Head of the Montana League of Cities and Towns Kelly Lynch pushes back against concerns about criminalizing homelessness.

“I’m not hearing from anyone who wants to absolutely kick homeless people out of their community. That’s not a discussion that’s happening in Montana,” said Lynch

Lynch says cities have been leery of regulations on urban camping over fears of litigation. She says this ruling will give cities more flexibility to say when and where people can sleep in public.

But she adds what cities really need is more money to stand up services to help unhoused people get housing.

Aaron graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Journalism in 2015 after interning at Minnesota Public Radio. He landed his first reporting gig in Wrangell, Alaska where he enjoyed the remote Alaskan lifestyle and eventually moved back to the road system as the KBBI News Director in Homer, Alaska. He joined the MTPR team in 2019. Aaron now reports on all things in northwest Montana and statewide health care.
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