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Supreme Court says cities can ban homeless from sleeping outside

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The Supreme Court on Friday ruled that cities may ban homeless residents from sleeping outside, rejecting a constitutional challenge to a set of anti-camping laws in a decision that will have a sweeping impact on how local officials address the nation’s escalating housing crisis.

In a 6-3 decision, which broke along ideological lines, the court’s conservative majority said that regulations penalizing people for sleeping in public spaces such as parks and streets do not constitute “cruel and unusual punishment” under the Eighth Amendment, even when a community lacks indoor shelter and its unhoused residents have nowhere else to go.

“Homelessness is complex,” Justice Neil M. Gorsuch wrote in the ruling.

Localities should be free to devise their own solutions, he argued, and the Eighth Amendment “does not authorize federal judges to wrest those rights and responsibilities from the American people and in their place dictate this Nation’s homelessness policy.”

The case centered on laws enacted in Grants Pass, Ore., and the court’s review comes at a time when officials across the country are struggling to deal with a growing number of unhoused individuals. The problem is especially pronounced in the American West, where soaring housing costs have driven more and more vulnerable people into homelessness.

Friday’s decision returns the case to the lower courts, which will consider other arguments against the Grants Pass laws, and city leaders say there will be no immediate changes.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor read her searing dissent from the bench, calling such laws “unconscionable and unconstitutional.”

“Sleep is a biological necessity, not a crime,” said Sotomayor, who was joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson.


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The Supreme Court agreed to take the case after hearing from an unlikely coalition that spanned the political spectrum, including liberals such as California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and officials in Republican-led states such as Montana and Alabama. The officials described governments overwhelmed by the scale and complexity of homelessness. More than 600,000 people are homeless nationwide, according to federal data, and nearly half sleep outside.

Newsom — who leads the state with the country’s largest unhoused population and frequently criticizes the high court’s conservatives — welcomed the decision, saying it provides “definitive authority to implement and enforce policies to clear unsafe encampments from our streets.”

“This decision removes the legal ambiguities that have tied the hands of local officials for years and limited their ability to deliver on common-sense measures to protect the safety and well-being of our communities.”

Theane Evangelis, the lead attorney for Grants Pass, said the court “delivered urgent relief to the many communities that have struggled to address the growing problem of dangerous encampments.” Evangelis had argued that laws like those passed in Grants Pass were necessary to combat spikes in violent crime, drug overdoses and fires often connected with unhoused people living in tents.

“Years from now, I hope that we will look back on today’s watershed ruling as the turning point in America’s homelessness crisis,” she said in a statement.

Lawyers for the unhoused individuals who originally brought the case contended that officials were free to restrict tents in public spaces, to clear encampments and even to fine homeless people who decline other shelter options. But, the attorneys argued, cities should not be allowed to punish people who have no alternatives.

They said Friday’s decision criminalizes the status of homelessness and will have ruinous consequences for those without shelter.

“We are disappointed that a majority of the Court has decided that our Constitution allows a city to punish its homeless residents simply for sleeping outside with a blanket to survive the cold when there is nowhere else for them to go,” said Ed Johnson, the director of litigation at the Oregon Law Center and lead counsel for the unhoused individuals.

While the decision is a major blow to his legal team’s arguments, Johnson said he plans to continue to challenge the laws on other grounds.

Still, advocates said they feared the ruling would allow municipalities to continue punishing homeless residents without investing in solutions to the crisis, such as affordable housing and mental health care.

“This decision sets a dangerous precedent that will cause undue harm to people experiencing homelessness,” Ann Oliva, CEO of the nonprofit National Alliance to End Homelessness, said in a statement. “This ruling allows leaders to shift the burden to law enforcement. This tactic has consistently failed to reduce homelessness in the past, and it will assuredly fail to reduce homelessness in the future.”

Some other local officials agreed. In Los Angeles, perhaps the epicenter of the homelessness epidemic, Mayor Karen Bass warned cities against using the ruling as a pretext to “arrest their way out of this problem or hide the homelessness crisis in neighboring cities or in jail.”

“Neither will work, neither will save lives and that route is more expensive for taxpayers than actually solving the problem,” she said in a statement.

In Grants Pass, a city of 40,000 tucked into Oregon’s picturesque Rogue River Valley, officials heralded the decision in a legal dispute that has been ongoing for years, dividing a normally quiet community.

Because Grants Pass does not have a homeless shelter, hundreds of unhoused residents took refuge in the city’s public parks as the case played out. Many had lived in Grants Pass for much of their lives and they feared what might happen if they were forced to leave. Nearby homeowners, however, quickly became impatient with the tents and launched an increasingly aggressive group to protest them.

“The case is complicated and homelessness is complicated,” Grants Pass Mayor Sara Bristol said in an interview. “I’ve never seen it as black and white. We do need to address the causes of homelessness and help homeless people, and we do need to protect our public spaces.”

The saga began in 2018, after the city started strictly enforcing its anti-camping measures, triggering a lawsuit from three homeless residents, Debra Blake, Gloria Johnson and John Logan.

The laws imposed fines ranging from $75 to $295, which increased substantially when unpaid and could eventually lead to jail time or a ban from the city’s parks. Blake, Johnson and Logan said the city was punishing them “based on their status of being involuntarily homeless” in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

In 2020, a district judge barred the city from enforcing its anti-camping ban in parks at night if no other shelter was available. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which covers Western states, including Oregon, California and Washington, upheld the judge’s decision in 2022.

Since then, Bristol said, Grants Pass has been in a state of political paralysis, with leaders unwilling to make significant changes while the case was underway. At the same time, proposals to build new housing and homeless shelters stalled, exacerbating the problem.

In a statement, the city said its attorneys would review the Supreme Court’s decision and advise leaders on next steps. And even while the court upheld the anti-camping rules, the city must still comply with state law that requires such bans to be “objectively reasonable.” It’s too soon, officials said, to know exactly how the new legal landscape will impact the unhoused residents of Grants Pass.

If the city does seek to restrict camping at its parks, it will also probably need to identify another location where its unhoused residents can sleep, Bristol said.

“We as communities and a nation are going to need to figure out how to deal with this,” she said. “And not ignore the problem and not punish people who are the victims of a bad economy.”

Outside one of the city’s parks early Friday morning, Cassy Leach sat in her car and considered how to break the news to some of the many unhoused people she assists every day. It was the ruling she was scared of — but also the one she expected.

“Regardless of the Supreme Court’s decisions, there are still wonderful, beautiful people out here who need support and help and we need to provide that for them,” said Leach, who founded the Mobile Integrative Navigation Team, one of the city’s leading homeless services organization.

She said she’s worried the ruling could lead to more violent confrontations between hostile city residents and the parks’ unhoused population. Already, some people she works with have fled to nearby federal land, where they’re free of harassment from police and angry homeowners, but are more difficult to reach for Leach and other service providers.

She said she hopes the decision will push the city to act with more urgency — and unity.

“Homelessness isn’t going away. It’s only going to continue to skyrocket,” Leach said. “We still need to solve for it. We’re a small town, we could fix this easy if we come together.”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post