Supreme Court gives cities in California and beyond more power to crack down on homeless camps (2024)

Supreme Court gives cities in California and beyond more power to crack down on homeless camps (1)

In summary

Cities no longer are prohibited from punishing homeless people for camping if they have nowhere else to go.

The U.S. Supreme Court today granted cities more power to arrest, cite and fine people who sleep outside in public places —overturning six years of legal protections for homeless residents in California and other western states.

In Grants Pass v. Johnson, the court sided with Grants Pass in a 6-3 decision — ruling an ordinance passed by the Oregon city that essentially made it illegal for homeless residents to camp on all public property was not unconstitutional.

The much-anticipated decision overturns a prior influential Ninth Circuit appellate ruling, and means cities no longer are prohibited from punishing unhoused residents for camping if they have nowhere else to go. It will have major ramifications for how California leaders and law enforcement handle homeless encampments.

Activists supporting the civil rights of unhoused people decried the ruling, saying it could result in people getting arrested simply for being homeless.

“It will make homelessness worse, in California and Grants pass and across the country,” said Jesse Rabinowitz, spokesperson for the National Homelessness Law Center. “We know that throwing people in jail and giving them thousands of dollars in tickets makes it harder for them to find jobs, harder for them to find housing and harder for them to exit homelessness.”

But groups representing cities, counties, law enforcement organizations and business interests cheered the decision, saying it would finally allow for the removal of unsafe, unsanitary encampments. Even Gov. Gavin Newsom weighed in, filing a “friend of the court” brief in which he wrote: “Hindering cities’ efforts to help their unhoused populations is as inhumane as it is unworkable.”

“Homelessness is a crisis in California. The misguided 9th Circuit decision has tied the hands of local officials, allowing encampments to multiply unchecked,” California Republican Rep. Kevin Kiley of Rocklin said in an email to CalMatters. “Cities need to be able to act to protect public health and safety, while at the same time connecting those in need with services.”

Those who are or have been homeless are worried about what happens now. Anita De Asis Miralle, who goes by “Needa Bee,” was homeless for about eight years before finding housing in Oakland earlier this year. De Asis Miralle, who advocates for other unhoused people through her grassroots group The Village, worries the ruling will lead to cities disregarding their rights. Already, she said, she’s seen Oakland clear encampments without offering occupants adequate shelter. To her, those sweeps rip apart communities and take away people’s precarious sense of stability.

“The big fear is not only how bold they’re going to be,” De Asis Miralle said, “but how much deeper into instability and trauma and homelessness it will drive people.”

How we got here

The case stems from a 2018 lawsuit against Grants Pass, a small city in Southern Oregon that banned camping throughout its jurisdiction. The lower courts sided with homeless residents who argued that because humans need to sleep somewhere, the Grants Pass ordinance made it illegal to be homelessness.

That decision was in line with an earlier Ninth Circuit appellate ruling – Martin v. Boise – which determined that punishing an unhoused person for camping in public, if they have nowhere else to go, violates the Constitution’s 8th Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The 2018 Boise ruling changed how cities respond to homeless encampments. Many interpreted the court decision to mean that they could not clear an encampment unless they had a shelter bed available for every displaced resident. Local courts have hit several California cities, including San Francisco, Sacramento, Chico and San Rafael, with orders halting or delaying encampment clean-ups due to lack of adequate shelter.

Supreme Court gives cities in California and beyond more power to crack down on homeless camps (2)

The COVID pandemic made the situation more complex. In 2020, federal health regulations recommended that cities not clear any encampments, in order to limit the spread of the virus and protect vulnerable homeless residents. Encampments in many California cities grew and became more entrenched, with residents building make-shift shacks out of scraps of wood and metal.

When vaccines arrived and concern about the pandemic gradually died down, it left in its wake a growing discontent over the proliferation of homeless encampments in public open spaces. With that came a chorus of complaints from city leaders and law enforcement that the Boise ruling stripped them of the power to enforce rules regarding homeless residents.

It’s an issue that’s particularly crucial in California, which is home to nearly a third of the country’s homeless population. More than 180,000 unhoused people live in the Golden State, including more than 123,000 people who sleep in encampments or other places not meant for habitation.

Multiple California cities already are cracking down on those homeless camps. Some are getting around the Boise ruling by banning camps in certain areas rather than throughout the entire city. San Diego recently started enforcing a controversial ordinance that prohibits camps near schools, shelters and transit hubs, in parks, and – if shelter beds are available – on all public sidewalks. At the same time, the city opened two sanctioned tent campsites where about 500 unhoused people can sleep.

San Diego’s ordinance has led to a noticeable decrease in the number of homeless residents camping downtown. But camping is just as prevalent – if not more so – along highway on- and off-ramps, and along the San Diego River.

State Senate Bill 1011 by GOP leader Brian Jones would have imposed a statewide camping ban similar to San Diego’s. But the bill died in its first committee hearing, suggesting a lack of appetite for a statewide crackdown.

Activists who provide homeless services, as well as researchers who study the population, say cities should not be able to break up encampments with impunity. Encampment sweeps cause homeless residents to lose important belongings and documents, push them farther away from their sources of food, medicine and other services, and – especially if arrests or citations are involved – make it harder for them to find jobs and housing, according to experts.

“The enforcement of laws criminalizing homelessness has been shown to have wide-ranging and lingering negative impacts on those experiencing homelessness, which create significant barriers to exiting homelessness,” a group of more than 50 social scientists specializing in homelessness wrote in a “friends of the court” brief in the Grants Pass case.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in April. In their comments and questions, the justices appeared divided along ideological lines, with the liberal justices more sympathetic to the arguments of the homeless residents. The Supreme Court has a 6-3 conservative majority.

Underscoring the importance of the case, more than three dozen elected officials and organizations weighed in by filing “friend of the court” briefs.

Related

CalMattersis a Sacramento-based nonpartisan, nonprofit journalism venture committed to explaining how California's state Capitol works and why it matters. It works with more than 130 media partners throughout the state that have long, deep relationships with their local audiences, including Embarcadero Media.

Supreme Court gives cities in California and beyond more power to crack down on homeless camps (2024)

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