Supreme Court Grapples with Limits on Cities’ Homeless Encampment Crackdowns, Ruling Expected By June

U.S. Supreme Court

In a heated session, the Supreme Court on Monday, April 22, deliberated on the extent to which U.S. cities can enforce regulations targeting homeless encampments, sparking a contentious debate on public health, constitutional rights, and municipal authority.

The case under scrutiny involved Grants Pass, Oregon, where a local ordinance prohibited sleeping in public with a blanket, imposing hefty fines and potential jail time on violators.

The city’s anti-camping laws faced legal challenge, with a federal appeals court deeming them unconstitutional, citing violations of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Similar rulings in 2018, notably in Boise, Idaho, set a precedent, prompting concerns from city officials about the proliferation of unsanitary encampments and the impact on public spaces.

Justices expressed divergent views, with Justice Sonia Sotomayor emphasizing the need for compassion toward the homeless while grappling with the balance between public health and civil liberties.

Deputy Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler argued for city flexibility in setting reasonable regulations, emphasizing the challenge of addressing public health hazards in encampments.

Conversely, attorneys representing Grants Pass’ homeless residents contended that such ordinances unfairly targeted the vulnerable population, exacerbating their plight and displacing them to neighboring jurisdictions.

Chief Justice John Roberts raised questions about the judiciary’s role in policy judgments, while Justice Elena Kagan likened sleeping in public to a biological necessity akin to breathing, highlighting the complexity of labeling homelessness as a status versus conduct.

The justices’ deliberation delved into the historical precedent set by a 1963 ruling against a California law criminalizing drug addiction, underscoring the significance of distinguishing between status and conduct in adjudicating constitutional challenges.

With over 650,000 individuals experiencing homelessness in the United States, the court’s decision, expected by June 2024, holds far-reaching implications for municipal governance, civil liberties, and social justice.