Record numbers in the US are homeless. Can cities fine them for sleeping in parks and on sidewalks?

WASHINGTON – The most important homelessness case in decades has reached the Supreme Court as record numbers of people in America remain without permanent residence.

The justices on Monday will consider challenging the rulings of a California-based appeals court, which ruled that punishing people who sleep outside when there is no shelter amounts to unconstitutional, cruel and unusual punishment.

A political cross-section of officials in the West and California, where nearly a third of the nation’s homeless population lives, argue that these decisions have limited them in “common sense” measures intended to prevent homeless encampments from taking over public parks and sidewalks .

Advocacy groups say the decisions provide vital legal protections, especially as an increasing number of people are forced to sleep outside as housing costs skyrocket.

The case before the Supreme Court comes from Grants Pass, a small town nestled in the mountains of southern Oregon, where rents are rising and there is only one overnight shelter for adults. As a growing number of tents clustered the parks, the city banned camping and imposed $295 fines for people sleeping there.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals blocked the camping ban largely based on a finding that it is unconstitutional to punish people for sleeping outdoors when there is not enough shelter. Grants Pass appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the ruling left few good options.

“It has really made it impossible for cities to address the growing encampments, and they are unsafe, unhealthy and problematic for everyone, especially those experiencing homelessness,” said attorney Theane Evangelis, who represents Grants Pass.

The city is also challenging a 2018 decision known as Martin v. Boise, which first banned camping where there was no shelter. It was issued by the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit and applies to the nine Western states within its jurisdiction. The Supreme Court declined to challenge the ruling otherwise in 2019, before the current conservative majority had strengthened.

If the decision is reversed, advocates say it would make it easier for cities to deal with homelessness by arresting and fining people, rather than helping them get shelter and housing.

“In Grants Pass and across America, homelessness has increased because more and more hardworking people are struggling to pay rent, not because we lack ways to punish people who sleep outside,” said Jesse Rabinowitz, campaign and communications director for the National Homeless Law Center. Local laws banning sleeping in public spaces have increased by at least 50% since 2006, he said.

The case comes as homelessness in the United States grew 12%, to the highest reported level, as rising rents and a decline in aid amid the coronavirus pandemic combined to put housing out of reach for more people, according to federal data. Four in 10 people experiencing homelessness sleep outside, a federal report shows.

It is estimated that more than 650,000 people are homeless, the highest number since the country began using the annual point-in-time survey in 2007. People of color, LGBTQ+ people and seniors are disproportionately affected, advocates say.

Two of the four states with the largest homeless populations in the country, Washington and California, are in the West. Officials in cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco say they don’t want to punish people simply for being forced to sleep outside, but that cities need the power to control growing encampments.

“I never want to criminalize homelessness, but I want to be able to encourage people to accept services and shelter,” said Thien Ho, the district attorney in Sacramento, California, where homelessness has risen sharply in recent years.

San Francisco says it can’t enforce camping rules because the city doesn’t have enough shelter for its entire homeless population, which would cost an estimated $1.5 billion.

“These encampments often block sidewalks, prevent workers from clearing public roadways, and create health and safety risks for both the unhoused and the general public,” attorneys for the city wrote. City workers have also encountered knives, drug trafficking and combative people in camps, they said.

Several cities and California’s Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, have urged the Supreme Court to uphold some legal protections while reining in “overreach” by lower courts. The Martin v. Boise ruling allows cities to regulate and “sweep” encampments, but not enforce outright bans in communities without enough beds in shelters.

The Justice Department also supported the idea that people should not be punished for sleeping outside when they have nowhere else to go, but said the Grants Pass ruling should be thrown out because the 9th Circuit erred by not defining what it means to are. involuntarily homeless.”

Evangelis, the attorney for Grants Pass, argues that the Biden administration’s position would not solve the problem for the Oregon city. “It would be impossible for cities to truly address the homelessness crisis,” she said.

Public encampments are not a good place for people to live, said Ed Johnson, who represents people living outside Grants Pass as a litigation director at the Oregon Law Center. But enforcing camping bans often makes homelessness worse by forcing people to spend money on fines instead of housing, or by issuing an arrest warrant that makes it harder to get an apartment. Government officials should instead focus on addressing affordable housing shortages so people have places to live, he said.

“It’s frustrating when people who have all the power throw up their hands and say, ‘We can’t do anything,’” he says sadly. “People have to go somewhere.”

The Supreme Court is expected to rule by the end of June.