Supreme Court: Cities can cite, fine homeless for camping in public places

The Supreme Court decided on Friday that cities can issue citations, fines and ultimately remove people who camp outdoors in public places – something that the city of San Francisco and California's governor had been pushing for.

"Today’s Supreme Court ruling … provides state and local officials the definitive authority to implement and enforce policies to clear unsafe homeless encampments and helps us deliver common-sense measures to protect the safety and well-being of our communities," California Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement.

The case is the most significant to come before the high court in decades on the issue and comes as a rising number of people in the U.S. are without a permanent place to live.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 181,399 people are unhoused in California, a 40 percent increase from five years ago.  28 percent, or roughly one out of every three unhoused residents in the U.S. live in California. 

In a 6-3 decision along ideological lines, the high court reversed a ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco that found citing people for sleeping outdoors was unconstitutional.

This case originated out of Grants Pass, Oregon. The city had passed a law that said people who camp on city streets could be subject to citations, fines, and ultimately removal from those public spaces. Advocates for people who are homeless  sued, arguing the law amounts to cruel and unusual punishment - a violation of the 8th amendment - because it would criminalize sleeping, a basic human need. 

Grants Pass attorneys argued cruel and unusual punishment applies to things like torture or hard labor sentences - not tickets for camping in public spaces. 

A majority of U.S. Supreme Court justices sided with Grants Pass. 

"Homelessness is complex. Its causes are many. So may be the public policy responses required to address it," Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the majority. "A handful of federal judges cannot begin to ‘match’ the collective wisdom the American people possess in deciding ‘how best to handle’ a pressing social question like homelessness."

A bipartisan group of leaders had argued the ruling against the bans made it harder to manage outdoor encampments encroaching on sidewalks and other public spaces in nine Western states. That includes California.

Homeless advocates, on the other hand, said that allowing cities to punish people who need a place to sleep would criminalize homelessness and ultimately make the crisis worse. Cities had been allowed to regulate encampments but couldn’t bar people from sleeping outdoors.

"Sleep is a biological necessity, not a crime," Justice Sonia Sotomayor said, reading from the bench a dissent joined by her liberal colleagues. "Punishing people for their status is ‘cruel and unusual’ under the Eighth Amendment," she wrote in the dissent.

In an interview with KTVU on Friday, Jennifer Friedenbach, the executive director for the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco, agreed with Sotomayor. 

"We have a situation where the Supreme Court said homeless people can be arrested because they are poor and they have no other choice but to sleep on the street," she said. "We cannot arrest our way out of homelessness. This decision will exacerbate the problem of homelessness. We know what the solutions are: People need affordable housing."

The city of San Francisco had been pushing to clear the multitude of homeless encampments.

Pleased with the decision, San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu vowed that the city "has and will continue to take a compassionate, services-first approach to addressing our homelessness crisis."

He added that it will take time to analyze this decision and "chart a path forward to change policies on the ground and ensure our litigation catches up with the Supreme Court’s decision."

That said, Chiu said the Supreme Court’s decision will give cities more flexibility to provide services to unhoused people while also keeping the streets clean.

"It will help us address our most challenging encampments, where services are often refused and re-encampment is common," Chiu wrote. "In this case, the Justices grappled with many complicated policy questions that our city workers face on the street every day. The complexity of these questions, and the lived experiences of our city’s workers, illustrate why our position has been that courts are not equipped to police every interaction between government workers and unhoused people. The Supreme Court agreed with that principle today.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed echoed with Chiu and Newsom said. 

"This decision by the Supreme Court will help cities like San Francisco manage our public spaces more effectively and efficiently," Breed said in a statement. "San Francisco has made significant investments in shelter and housing. But too often these offers are rejected, and we need to be able to enforce our laws, especially to prevent long-term encampments. This decision recognizes that cities must have more flexibility to address challenges on our streets."

Grants Pass had fined people $295 for sleeping outside after tents began crowding public parks. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over the nine Western states, ruled in 2018 that such fines violate the Eighth Amendment in areas where there aren’t enough shelter beds.

Friday’s ruling comes after homelessness in the United States grew a dramatic 12% last year to its highest reported level, as soaring rents and a decline in coronavirus pandemic assistance combined to put housing out of reach for more people.

More than 650,000 people are estimated to be homeless, the most since the country began using a yearly point-in-time survey in 2007. Nearly half of them sleep outside. Older adults, LGBTQ+ people and people of color are disproportionately affected, advocates said. In Oregon, a lack of mental health and addiction resources has also helped fuel the crisis.

The Associated Press' Lindsay Whitehurst contributed to this report.