Supreme Court rules cities may enforce laws against homeless encampments

The Supreme Court ruled Friday that cities in California and the West may enforce laws restricting homeless encampments on sidewalks and other public property.

In a 6-3 decision, the justices disagreed with the 9th Circuit Court in San Francisco and ruled it is not “cruel and unusual” punishment for city officials to forbid homeless people from sleeping on the streets or in parks.

“Homelessness is complex,” Justice Neil M. Gorsuch wrote for the court. “Its causes are many. So may be the public policy responses required to address it. At bottom, the question this case presents is whether the 8th Amendment grants federal judges primary responsibility for assessing those causes and devising those responses. It does not.”

Gorsuch said the 8th 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.”

He was joined by the other conservative justices, while the three liberal justices dissented.

“Sleep is a biological necessity, not a crime,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor said in dissent. “For some people, sleeping outside is their only option. For people with no access to shelter, that punishes them for being homeless. That is unconscionable and unconstitutional. Punishing people for their status is ‘cruel and unusual’ under the 8th Amendment.”

The ruling is a significant victory for city officials in the West and a setback for homeless rights advocates. Since 2018, the advocates had won rulings from the 9th Circuit that held it was unconstitutional to enforce anti-camping laws against people who had no home and nowhere to sleep.

Many city officials said those rulings led to the growth of tent encampments in Los Angeles and most cities on the West Coast. They joined an Oregon city’s appeal to the Supreme Court seeking to clarify their authority over public property.

Nothing in today’s decision requires cities or their police to take stronger enforcement action against homeless people, but it will free some of them to do so.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom hailed the decision: “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.”

Los Angeles lawyer Theane Evangelis, who represented the Oregon city that had appealed, said the court “delivered urgent relief to the many communities that have struggled to address the growing problem of dangerous encampments.”

Ann Oliva, chief executive of the National Alliance to End Homeless, condemned the decision.

“This decision sets a dangerous precedent that will cause undue harm to people experiencing homelessness and give free reign to local officials who prefer pointless and expensive arrests and imprisonment, rather than real solutions,” she said. “At a time when elected officials need to be focused on long-term, sustainable solutions that are grounded in evidence — including funding the affordable housing and supportive services that their constituents need — 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.”

The case before the court arose in Grants Pass, Ore., a city of 38,000 people. It was estimated to have between 50 and 600 people who were homeless and only a few shelters, which lacked space for all of them.

Homeless advocates said the city police were using fines and threats against people who were living on the sidewalks or in their cars. They said the city’s aim was to “banish” these homeless people from the town.

They sued and won before a federal judge who struck down the anti-camping ordinance because the city was essentially punishing people for being homeless.

A divided 9th Circuit agreed by a 2-1 vote. Judge Rosyln Silver said the “city of Grants Pass cannot, consistent with the 8th Amendment, enforce its anti-camping ordinances against homeless persons for the mere act of sleeping outside with rudimentary protection from the elements, or for sleeping in their car at night, when there is no other place in the city for them to go.”

The full 9th Circuit then split 14 to 13 to uphold that ruling.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom and city attorneys from Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and Phoenix were among two dozen government and business groups that urged the high court to hear the appeal in Johnson vs. Grants Pass and overturn the 9th Circuit.

Only once before — and 40 years ago — did a case on homelessness come before the Supreme Court.

A group called the Community for Creative Non-Violence sought a permit in 1982 for a homelessness-awareness demonstration in Lafayette Square across the street from the White House, and their request included a “symbolic tent city” where about 50 people would sleep.

The National Park Service approved the permit to demonstrate, but refused the request for sleeping in the park. The advocates sued, contending the ban on camping violated the 1st Amendment’s protection for free speech. They lost before a federal judge, won in the U.S. appeals court and finally lost 7 to 2 in the Supreme Court in 1984.

Writing for the court, Justice Byron White said the 1st Amendment permits reasonable limits on the “time, place and manner” of demonstrations. “We have very little trouble concluding that the Park Service may prohibit overnight sleeping in the parks involved here,” he wrote.

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