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Regulation of Unauthorized Camping, Loitering, and Solicitation of Aid

This page provides examples of local government regulation of unauthorized camping, soliciting aid, and loitering in the public right-of-way. 

For information on homelessness prevention, see our page on Homelessness.



Overview

Homelessness is a complex issue, and cities and counties often must tread a fine line between providing adequate services to individuals experiencing homelessness and attempting to regulate the impact of homelessness in public spaces. Common areas of regulation include soliciting aid, pedestrian and vehicular interference, and sleeping in public spaces. Jurisdictions should use caution when attempting to address these issues because they may have the effect of criminalizing homelessness and be counterproductive to efforts to transition people from homelessness to stable housing. Additionally, some regulations have been found to be unconstitutional.

This page reviews some of the more common areas of regulation — unauthorized sitting, lying, or camping, using vehicles as habitation, soliciting aid, and loitering — and includes information on court decisions that impact a local government’s ability to create regulations addressing these areas.


Unauthorized Sitting, Lying, or Camping in Public Places

Many local governments have ordinances that regulate or prohibit sitting, lying, or camping in public places but there are restrictions on the ability of agencies to enforce such regulations.

In the case of Martin v. City of Boise, the Ninth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals did not find such ordinances to be facially invalid, but it did find enforcement to be in violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment if the individual cited is homeless and does not have a reasonable alternative to sitting, lying, or sleeping at that particular location. MRSC has published blogs that describe the case in more detail and summarize actions that some cities have taken in response to the ruling.

Examples of Sit-Lie Ordinances and Codes

Several Washington jurisdictions have sit-lie laws, some limiting the scope of the law to certain downtown or commercial areas and/or within certain times of the day. Most require that an individual first be notified by law enforcement that the conduct is prohibited before a citation can be issued. Additionaly, they generally offer exceptions, such as for persons in a wheelchair, injured, patronizing a shop, on private property, or at a bus stop.

These examples below generally predate the 2018 Martin v. City of Boise decision.

Examples of Ordinances, Codes, and Procedures Regarding Encampments

These ordinances regulating encampments were updated or passed after the 2018 Martin v. City of Boise ruling.

These documents are related to removal and/or cleanup of encampments.  

Here are some public-facing local government webpages related to encampments


Use of Vehicles for Habitation

Some individuals experiencing homelessness live in vehicles. If a vehicle used for habitation becomes inoperable, it may be cited by parking enforcement personnel for violating duration restrictions (remaining in the same spot for too long). If the vehicle is not moved, it becomes subject to impoundment.

A 2021 Washington Supreme Court case addressed vehicles used for habitation by their owners and whether such vehicles were subject to homestead rights. In City of Seattle v. Long, the state Supreme Court ruled that municipalities may cite such vehicles for violating parking regulations and may impound the vehicles. However, the court also found that the process by which unclaimed impounded vehicles are sold at auction is a violation of the owner’s homestead rights if the owner is living in the vehicle. For more information and analysis, see City of Seattle v. Long: Vehicle Homestead Rights and Excessive Fines.


Soliciting Aid

Ordinances that regulate soliciting aid have become a point of contention among municipalities throughout the country, including in Washington. This is because many restrictions on soliciting aid are a restriction on speech and, thus, implicate the First Amendment. As such, these laws are scrutinized strictly by the courts and must be narrowly-crafted to survive constitutional review. 

Many municipalities have laws that place specific restrictions on the solicitation of aid in the public right-of-way, such as restricting it on major roads, within a certain distance of an ATM, or by time of day. Such laws have been defended on the grounds that they are content-neutral time, place, and manner restrictions because they only restrict soliciting aid in certain places or at certain times. However, the way in which such laws are scrutinized has changed in light of the 2015 United States Supreme Court decision in Reed v. Town of GilbertThat case involved signs, but its holding has been understood as applying to content-based restrictions on speech more generally. 

Out-of-State Court Decisions Regarding Solicitation

Prohibitions on soliciting aid are generally unconstitutional under the First Amendment due to the limitations on free speech. However, narrowly drafted pedestrian and vehicular interference ordinances may pass muster if they regulate conduct (blocking the right-of-way) instead of expression, as the court decisions below illustrate. 

  • Reed v. Town of Gilbert, 135 S. Ct. 2218 (2014): The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the town’s sign code because it regulated signs based on content. The court ruled that government regulations curtailing free speech must be as narrow as possible and must fulfill a “compelling government interest.” At issue was enforcement of a town ordinance that restricted signs for religious services.
  • Brown v. City of Grand Junction, 136 F. Supp.3d 1276 (Colo. 2015): A Colorado Federal District Court found a city ordinance that restricted soliciting aid at night, within 20 feet of an ATM or bus stop, adjacent to an outdoor patio, or within a public parking facility unconstitutional. The court ruled that the City of Grand Junction’s ordinance violated the First Amendment rights of persons who wish to solicit charity in public places by failing to justify its regulation of expression.

Changes in Washington State with City of Lakewood v. Willis

In 2016 the Washington Supreme Court signaled a shift in how it will assess restrictions on soliciting in response to Reed. In City of Lakewood v. Willis, the court assessed the constitutionality of a Lakewood ordinance that prohibited soliciting aid at on- and off-ramps of state highways and at the intersections of major arterials roads. The court stated that Reed applies to soliciting laws and held that the Lakewood ordinance was content-based because it only applied to soliciting aid but not to other types of speech.

In reaching this conclusion the court highlighted several other decisions striking down laws that regulate the solicitation of aid. This is noteworthy because those cases address soliciting restrictions that are more broadly applicable than the regulation in Willis

While the Willis decision only explicitly addressed restrictions on soliciting next to a highway off- or on-ramp and next to arterial roads, its reach is broader. Laws that prohibit soliciting in specific locations or at certain times are likely to come under strict scrutiny under Willis.

Examples of Pedestrian and Vehicular Interference Codes, Post Willis

In response to City of Lakewood v. Willis, some jurisdictions repealed their solicitation ordinances, including the samples listed below.

There are other offenses that address the same concerns without the same free speech implications, such as disorderly conduct, harassment, and assault.


Pedestrian and Vehicular Interference

Some jurisdictions have adopted narrowly focused laws that identify and prohibit interference with vehicles and pedestrians in the public right-of-way. Since these ordinances regulate conduct instead of expression, they are not as constitutionally problematic as prohibitions on soliciting aid. However, jurisdictions should remove or avoid provisions in their vehicle and pedestrian interference ordinances related to “aggressive begging” or “aggressive solicitation" as these may be interpreted to focus on speech and not conduct.

Examples of Pedestrian and Vehicular Interference Codes

  • DuPont Municipal Code Sec. 9.17.030 — Defines obstructing pedestrian or vehicular traffic as walking, standing, sitting, laying, or placing an object in such a manner as to block passage by another person or driver of a vehicle or to cause another person or driver of a vehicle to take evasive action to avoid physical contact. 
  • Normandy Park Municipal Code Ch. 10.34 — Prohibits pedestrian interference with vehicles on roadways and interference with vehicle sight distance.
  • Sumner Municipal Code Ch. 9.48 — Prohibits intentional interruption or obstruction of pedestrian or vehicular traffic by walking, standing, sitting, laying, or placing an object in such a manner as to block passage.

Loitering

Like solicitation, general loitering ordinances have been found to violate constitutional protections by being either too vague or overbroad. However, banning loitering as it relates to other illegal activities (e.g., drug activity, prostitution) has been upheld provided the regulation sufficiently describes the additional conditions that would make loitering illegal.

Washington Court Decisions Regarding Loitering

  • Seattle v. Drew, 70 Wn.2d 405 (1967): Challenged the constitutionality of an ordinance that made it a crime for any person loitering abroad, or abroad under suspicious circumstances, from one-half hour after sunset to one-half hour before sunrise, to fail to give a satisfactory account of their person upon the demand of any police officer. The state Supreme Court found the ordinance too vague, and therefore, in violation of state and federal constitutional protections.
  • Seattle v. Slack, 113 Wn.2d 850, 784 P.2d 494 (1989): Found that an ordinance prohibiting loitering by a “known prostitute” is constitutional when the term is defined and the ordinance requires criminal intent (in addition to loitering).
  • City of Spokane v. Neff, 152 Wn.2d 85, 93 P.3d 158 (2004): Found that an ordinance prohibiting loitering by a “known prostitute” is void for vagueness when it does not define the term. 

MRSC Recommended Resources

Publications

Blogs

Below are links to blogs written by MRSC staff and contributors.

Related Topic Pages

  • Homelessness — Provides an overview of local government homelessness prevention and assistance programs and policy approaches.
  • Homeless Shelter and Housing Options — Provides guidance for local governments on potential shelter and housing options for people experiencing homelessness 
  • Affordable Housing — A series of webpages related to affordable housing, including incentives and types, and funding sources.

Last Modified: July 28, 2022