Can cities fine unhoused people for sleeping outside?

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 growing encampments, and they are unsafe, unhealthy and problematic for everyone, especially those experiencing homelessness,” says advocate Theane Evangelisrepresenting 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.

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,” he said Thien Hothe district attorney in Sacramento, California, where homelessness has increased 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 the Democratic governor of California. Gavin Newsom urged the Supreme Court to uphold some legal protections while reining in the “overreach” of 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.”


Republished with permission from the Associated Press.

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