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Supreme Court rules cities can ticket homeless people for camping in public

The Supreme Court ruled Friday that cities can ticket homeless people for camping in public even when there is no alternative shelter available, a decision that could drastically alter the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans without a permanent place to live.

The justices sided 6-3 with the Oregon city of Grants Pass, which had asked the high court to review a lower court’s decision blocking the enforcement of a public camping ordinance after determining that banning camping where shelter beds were limited amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

Grants Pass officials argued that the restrictions imposed by the decision from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals prevented them from implementing “common sense” laws against camping in certain public places. The justices agreed.

“Yes, people will disagree over which policy responses are best; they may experiment with one set of approaches only to find later another set works better; they may find certain responses more appropriate for some communities than others,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the majority. “But in our democracy, that is their right.” 

“The Constitution’s Eighth Amendment serves many important functions, but it 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 continued.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by liberal Justices Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson, sharply rebuked the majority’s decision, suggesting it focused “almost exclusively” on local governments’ needs while leaving “the most vulnerable in our society” with a choice between staying awake or being arrested.

She read her dissent from the bench. 

“For people with no access to shelter, that punishes them for being homeless,” Sotomayor said of the city’s law. “That is unconscionable and unconstitutional. Punishing people for their status is ‘cruel and unusual’ under the Eighth Amendment.” 

Justice Clarence Thomas, in a brief concurring opinion, wrote that “modern public opinion” is the wrong metric with which to interpret the Eighth Amendment clause, claiming that many of the high court’s other precedents under the amendment “make the same mistake.” 

The Grants Pass anti-camping law would fine homeless people $295 per night for sleeping in the city’s public parks. Attorneys representing the city’s homeless population had argued that allowing the rule to stand would essentially criminalize the existence of homeless people.  

During oral arguments in April, the justices acknowledged the complicated issue of homelessness in the U.S. 

Sotomayor raised that sleeping is a biological necessity and that some people may be forced to do it outside if other shelter isn’t available, a concern she reiterated in her dissent. Justice Brett Kavanaugh questioned whether ticketing people for sleeping outside helps solve the issue if there isn’t an alternative. And Justice Neil Gorsuch pointed to the sanitary risk posed by allowing encampments to stand. 

Theane Evangelis, who represented Grants Pass, said in a statement that the Supreme Court’s decision delivered “urgent relief” to communities that have struggled to address “the growing problem of dangerous encampments.” 

“The Court has now restored the ability of cities on the frontlines of this crisis to develop lasting solutions that meet the needs of the most vulnerable members of their communities, while also keeping our public spaces safe and clean,” she said. “Years from now, I hope that we will look back on today’s watershed ruling as the turning point in America’s homelessness crisis.” 

Rates of homelessness remain at record-high levels as housing prices continue to soar. There are about 650,000 homeless people in the country, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, with about a third of them living on the West Coast.  

The justices previously declined to consider a similar appeal of the lower court’s 2019 ruling, which found that sleeping outdoors on public property — when there is no option to sleep indoors — can’t be criminalized “on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.”  

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