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Supreme Court weighs Oregon city’s power to punish the homeless

By 37ci3 Apr22,2024

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court On Monday, the constitutionality of municipal ordinances punishing homeless people for camping on public property when they have nowhere else to go is being debated.

The court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, will review an appeals court ruling that found several ordinances passed by the small town of Grants Pass, Oregon, to be prohibited under the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

The ordinances prohibit sleeping or camping on public property, including sidewalks, streets, bridges and city parks. Penalties at issue in the case can include fines of up to several hundred dollars and bans from removing people from public property.

Exacerbated by housing shortages and high rents, homelessness and how to deal with it has become a flashpoint in many communities across the country.

Homeless advocates argue that current ordinances punish people for existing when they have nowhere else to go and do nothing to address the housing shortage.

They point out that cities already have the authority to regulate encampments, which is not the issue before the Supreme Court.

“Can a city make it illegal on every inch of city land every minute of the day for people to live outside when they have nowhere to go? We think the answer is no,” said Ed Johnson, an attorney with the Oregon Law Center. who represents the plaintiffs.

The 2022 ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco applies to all nine states under its jurisdiction, including California. Several of these states have large homeless populations.

Local officials from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Phoenix and other cities are among those asking the Supreme Court to overturn the appeals court.

The Biden administration has largely supported opponents short saying that laws prohibiting either party from sleeping on public property are illegal “if they are applied in a way that prevents a person without shelter from living in the jurisdiction.”

The appeals court ruled 2-1 that Grants Pass, about 250 miles south of Portland, “cannot enforce its anti-camping laws against homeless people to sleep outside or sleep indoors with rudimentary protection from the elements at night, when there is nowhere else in town to go.”

The court added that the ruling only applies in situations where homeless people “engage in behaviors necessary to protect themselves from the elements in the absence of shelter.”

The case arose after a group of homeless people protested the implementation of the ordinances. They say there is there is no shelterso they have little choice but to sleep outside.

David Wilson sits outside his tent at Riverside Park in Grants Pass, Ore.
David Wilson sits outside his tent at Riverside Park on March 21 in Grants Pass, Ore. Jenny Kane / AP file

City officials say the ordinances are legal and intended to prevent the proliferation of homeless encampments.

Officials say their policy is intended to encourage homeless people to seek housing, even though the city itself has no shelters. Directs people to one run by a religious organization that has limited space and imposes different conditions.

“Fines and short prison terms for camping on public property are not cruel or unusual punishments,” the city’s attorneys wrote in court filings.

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By 37ci3

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