Supreme Court allows Oregon city policy targeting homeless

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Friday rejected a constitutional challenge to ordinances enacted by a small Oregon town that punish homeless people for sleeping on public property when they have nowhere else to go.

The justices, in a 6-3 vote along ideological lines with conservatives in the majority, ruled in favor of the city of Grants Pass, saying the measures do not violate the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

“The homeless problem is complex,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in his ruling. “Its causes are multiple. The policy responses needed to address it may be equally multiple. At its core, the question this case raises is whether the Eighth Amendment gives federal judges the primary responsibility for assessing those causes and designing those responses. It does not.”

In a dissenting opinion, liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the Grants Pass policy was “unconscionable and unconstitutional.” She added that going forward, she hoped the court would “play its part in safeguarding the constitutional freedoms of the most vulnerable among us.”

For the second day in a row, Sotomayor made her strong feelings known by reading a summary of her dissent in the courtroom.

The decision overturns a 2022 ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in favor of a group of homeless people.

That means an injunction limiting the city’s ability to enforce ordinances against people sleeping outdoors, protected only by blankets and with no other shelter, will be dismissed. The city could already enforce other aspects of what it describes as its anti-camping policy, including restrictions on more permanent encampments.

The ordinances prohibit sleeping or camping on public property, but the focus is on people who have no alternative because of the lack of homeless shelters in the city, located about 250 miles south of Portland.

Protesters hold signs and use reflective blankets during a demonstration in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in April.Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The penalty, which is the main issue in this case, can include fines of up to several hundred dollars and exclusion orders barring access to public property.

Homeless advocates said the ordinances punish people for existing when they have no other place to go and that the measures do nothing to address the underlying problem of housing shortages.

Cities already have the power to regulate homeless encampments, they add, which is not at issue before the Supreme Court.

Furthermore, the orders would only serve to shift the burden of serving the homeless population to neighboring jurisdictions, their attorneys argued.

Homeless advocates serve goods to hundreds of homeless people in Grants Pass, Oregon, in March.Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images file

The appeals court’s decision at issue applied to all nine states under its jurisdiction, including California. Several of those states have large homeless populations.

Among those asking the Supreme Court to overturn the appeals court were local officials from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Phoenix and other cities.

The Biden administration filed a brief in favor of neither side, arguing that laws prohibiting sleeping on public property are illegal “if enforced in a manner that prevents a person without available shelter from residing in the jurisdiction”.

A protester against drug use in parks demonstrates outside Grants Pass City Hall in March.Jenny Kane/AP

The appeals court ruled 2-1 that Grants Pass could not “enforce its anti-camping ordinances against homeless people for simply sleeping outside with rudimentary protection from the elements, or for sleeping in their car at night, when there is no other place in the city where they can go.

The decision only applies in situations where there is “no accommodation space available,” the court added.

The ruling largely upheld an injunction issued by a federal judge that limited the city’s ability to enforce ordinances against some homeless people sleeping in parks at night.

A camp in a park in Grants Pass, Oregon, in March.Jenny Kane/AP

The case arose after a group of homeless people challenged enforcement of the orders. They say there is no shelter so they have no choice but to sleep outside.

City officials argued in court that the ordinances were within the law and aimed at curbing the proliferation of homeless encampments.

Officials say their policy is intended to encourage homeless people to seek housing, even though the city itself does not have its own shelter. It directs people to a facility run by a religious organization that has limited space and imposes conditions that some homeless people object to.

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