ashland.news
July 18, 2024

U.S. Supreme Court sides with Grants Pass, allows ban on homeless people sleeping outdoors

Signage at the Gateway Island encampment in Ashland in February 2023. Debora Gordon photo
June 28, 2024

Ninth Circuit Court’s finding that restricted bans on regulation of sleeping outdoors overturned

By Ariana Figueroa, States Newsroom

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court Friday sided with a local ordinance in Oregon that bans homeless people from sleeping outdoors, and local governments will be allowed to enforce those laws.

In a 6-3 decision, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the opinion that the enforcement of those local laws that regulate camping on public property does not violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

“Homelessness is complex. Its causes are many. So may be the public policy responses required to address it,” he wrote. “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.”

The case originated in Grants Pass, a city in Oregon that argued its ordinance is a solution to the city’s homelessness crisis, which includes fines and potential jail time for repeat offenders who camp or sleep outdoors.

Attorney Theane Evangelis, who represented the city, said in a statement to States Newsroom that the ruling would provide relief to local communities trying to address the issues of encampments of homeless people.

“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.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a dissent arguing that the ordinance against camping and a separate ordinance against using blankets on public property targets the status of being homeless and is therefore a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

“Grants Pass’s Ordinances criminalize being homeless,” she wrote. “The Ordinances’ purpose, text, and enforcement confirm that they target status, not conduct. For someone with no available shelter, the only way to comply with the Ordinances is to leave Grants Pass altogether.”

During oral arguments, the justices seemed split along ideological lines.

The conservative justices sided with the town in Oregon, arguing that policies and ordinances around homelessness are complex, and should be left up to local elected representatives rather than the courts.

The liberal justices argued the Grants Pass ordinances criminalized the status of being homeless and criticized the city’s argument that homelessness is not a status protected under the Eighth Amendment.

The Biden administration took the middle ground in the case, and U.S. Deputy Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler offered partial support for the city.

“It’s the municipality’s determination, certainly in the first instance with a great deal of flexibility, how to address the question of homelessness,” he said during oral arguments in late April.

Homelessness crisis

The ruling, which was split along ideological lines, reverses the 9th Circuit’s decision that previously blocked the local law because it found the ordinance criminalized the status of being homeless and was therefore a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s bar on cruel and unusual punishment.

The Grants Pass ordinances prohibited people from camping and sleeping in parks and on public property and barred those people from using blankets, pillows or other materials to sleep outdoors. A violation carried a $295 file, and if not paid, could be increased to $530. Repeat offenders could also risk jail.

But the city, and a coalition of leaders from red and blue Western states, including Montana and California, petitioned the Supreme Court to review the case.

“Cities across the West report that the Ninth Circuit’s involuntariness test has created intolerable uncertainty for them,” Gorsuch wrote.

Cities across the U.S., particularly in the West, are grappling with an increasing homelessness crisis. It’s estimated that 650,000 people were homeless on a single night in January of 2023, a 12% increase from 2022, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

“HUD data indicates that the rise in overall homelessness is largely due to a sharp rise in the number of people who became homeless for the first time,” according to the agency.

States with the highest rates of homelessness include California, Oregon, Washington and Montana, according to five-year estimates in the American Community Survey.

Gorsuch argued that the case the 9th Circuit relied on in Martin v. City of Boise had a “poor foundation” for using the Eighth Amendment as its basis. In that case, homeless plaintiffs sued the city of Boise, Idaho, after it fined them under a camping ordinance.

“The Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause focuses on the question what ‘method or kind of punishment’ a government may impose after a criminal conviction, not on the question whether a government may criminalize particular behavior in the first place,” he wrote. “The Court cannot say that the punishments Grants Pass imposes here qualify as cruel and unusual.”

Sotomayor argued that the ruling focuses only on the needs of local officials and “leaves the most vulnerable in our society with an impossible choice: Either stay awake or be arrested.”

“The Constitution provides a baseline of rights for all Americans rich and poor, housed and unhoused,” she wrote. “This Court must safeguard those rights even when, and perhaps especially when, doing so is uncomfortable or unpopular.”

‘A crime to be homeless’

Advocacy groups expressed their frustration and disappointment in Friday’s decision, and raised concerns that it could lead to homeless people being criminalized for sleeping outdoors when they have nowhere else to go.

The president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Diane Yentel, strongly condemned the court’s decision and argued it would only worsen the crisis.

“It gives cover to elected officials who choose political expediency over real solutions by merely moving unhoused people out of public view rather than working to solve their homelessness,” Yentel said in a statement. “These ineffective and inhumane tactics exacerbate homelessness by saddling unhoused people with debt they can’t pay, while further isolating them from the services and support they need to become stably housed.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s deputy legal director for economic justice, Kirsten Anderson, said in a statement that the ruling will set a precedent for criminalizing homeless people.

“The Supreme Court held that it is a crime to be homeless — at a moment in which housing is unaffordable for half the people in the country — proving that it continues to be out of touch with the American public,” Anderson said.

Rosanne Haggerty, the president of Community Solutions, a nonprofit that works to end homelessness, expressed disappointment in the decision.

“Arresting or fining people for experiencing homelessness is cruel — and it won’t solve the problem,” Haggerty said in a statement.

Ariana Figueroa covers the nation’s capital for States Newsroom. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections and campaign finance. Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

Picture of Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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