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The U.S. Supreme Court will allow cities to ban homeless people sleeping outdoors. Photo by Frank Armstrong
The U.S. Supreme Court will allow cities to ban homeless people sleeping outdoors. Photo by Frank Armstrong
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US Supreme Court enforces ban on people sleeping outdoors

REGION — The United States Supreme Court decided today to allow cities to enforce bans on homeless people sleeping outdoors.

The Supreme Court decision greatly affects cities on the West Coast where shelter space is short in supply and when the number of homeless people in the country is rising.

The Supreme Court, in a 6-3 decision along ideological lines with conservatives in the majority, reversed a San Francisco-based appeals court’s finding that outdoor sleeping bans amount to cruel and unusual punishment. The majority’s ruling found that the 8th Amendment does not apply to outdoor sleeping bans.

The case originated in the rural Oregon town of Grants Pass, which appealed a ruling striking down local ordinances that fined people $295 for sleeping outside after tents began crowding public parks. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over the nine Western states, determined in 2018 that such bans violate the 8th Amendment of those who are in areas where there are not enough shelter beds.

Justice Neil M. Gorsuch wrote for the majority opinion.

“Homelessness is complex. Its causes are many. So may be the public policy responses required to address it,” Gorsuch wrote. “A handful of federal judges cannot begin to ‘match’ the collective wisdom the American people possess in deciding `how best to handle’ a pressing social question like homelessness.”

The three liberal justices, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson, dissented.

“It is possible to acknowledge and balance the issues facing local governments, the humanity and dignity of homeless people, and our constitutional principles,” Sotomayor wrote in her dissent. “Instead, the majority focuses almost exclusively on the needs of local governments and leaves the most vulnerable in our society with an impossible choice: Either stay awake or be arrested.”

Following the court’s decision, local groups and elected leaders voiced their thoughts.

“Today’s decision rightly empowers state and local officials to compassionately clear encampments,” said Senate Minority Leader Brian W. Jones, R-Santee. “Californians should not have to tolerate the encampments that have taken over our communities. This is not about criminalizing homelessness — it’s about ensuring the safety of both the community and homeless individuals.

“With this decision, Democrat politicians can no longer justify allowing this severe public health and safety crisis to persist on our streets. It’s time to clean up California.”

San Diego County Supervisor Jim Desmond said the ruling “marks a victory for common sense” and is “paramount for the safety and well-being of our community and for restoring the lives of those suffering.”

“It’s time for the city and county to restrict all sleeping on sidewalks,” Desmond said. “Enabling addicts to continue using is not compassionate. We wouldn’t allow our friends or family members to spiral into addiction without intervening, so why should we allow members of our community to do so? We must provide effective and humane solutions that address the root causes of homelessness and addiction rather than perpetuating the cycle of dependency and despair. This ruling empowers cities to enforce policies that maintain the cleanliness, safety, and accessibility of our public spaces.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom praised the decision, saying, “Today’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court provides state and local officials the 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,” Newsom said.

Advocates for those experiencing homelessness expressed shock and displeasure with the opinion.

“We’re dismayed to learn of today’s ruling,” said Paul Downey, CEO of local nonprofit Serving Seniors. “Homelessness is a housing problem, not a criminal justice issue. Turning people who cannot afford housing due to causes largely beyond their control into lawbreakers will not solve this problem. Instead, it will only increase serious social and economic costs for our communities.”

Serving Seniors filed an amicus brief with the court and hundreds of organizations strongly advocating for the Ninth Circuit’s decision to remain in place. The organization “rejects the effort to criminalize homelessness,” and “endorses supportive housing models as the only humane, effective, and economically sensible solution to homelessness.”

Some elected leaders believed the decision was the correct one and would allow for what they claim are the root causes of homelessness — addiction and mental health issues — to be tackled head-on.

“The Supreme Court’s decision today, upholding cities’ authority to ban outdoor sleeping on public sidewalks, is a crucial step forward for common sense,” said El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells. “This ruling enhances the safety and well-being of our community and provides an opportunity to support those in need.

“We need to adopt more comprehensive strategies that address the root causes of homelessness and addiction,” he said. “Ensuring public spaces remain safe and accessible is essential for the overall health of our community. This decision allows cities to take the necessary steps to maintain order and support struggling people.”

Tamera Kohler, CEO of the Regional Task Force on Homelessness, said the ruling wouldn’t do anything to help with the homelessness crisis.

“This ruling, by a divided Supreme Court, won’t help us solve homelessness, but it will harm people experiencing homelessness,” she said. “It’s inhumane. It stands up more barriers to housing. And it gives a green light to politicians and police who prefer arrests and time behind bars, rather than real solutions.”

Kohler said the key to solving homelessness is taking steps to prevent people from falling into it in the first place — steps such as affordable housing, supportive services and mental health treatment.

“RTFH will continue to advocate for best practices with proven track records, not failed policies that hurt people who need a helping hand,” she said. “These are our friends and neighbors, senior citizens and families, fast-food workers, people who lost a job or an apartment, or who have been injured. They don’t deserve to be jailed for sleeping. No one does.”

About a third of the homeless population in the United States is in California.

National data show the homeless population in the United States grew 12% last, its highest reported level. Rising rents and declining coronavirus pandemic relief assistance have made it more difficult for some to find adequate housing and shelter.

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