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 January 13, 2024

Supreme Court to weigh whether ban on homeless people sleeping on city streets is unconstitutional

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a case that will decide whether it's unconstitutional to prevent homeless people from sleeping on city streets, The Hill reported. Some have asserted that barring this amounts to "cruel and unusual punishment."

The high court agreed to hear the case Friday that comes from a lower court's decision to block Grant Pass, Oregon, from enforcing its own ban on public camping. The city warned that overturning a ban would lead to ills like "the re-emergence of medieval diseases," overdoses, increased crime, environmental damage, fires, and death.

“(The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals’) decisions are legally wrong and have tied the hands of local governments as they work to address the urgent homelessness crisis. The tragedy is that these decisions are actually harming the very people they purport to protect," said Theane Evangelis, an attorney representing Grants Pass.

"We look forward to presenting our arguments to the Supreme Court this spring," Evangelis added. This leaves officials with no legal recourse for getting people who are unable to help themselves off the streets.

Grant Pass's fight has at least one unlikely ally, as California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom and officials from left-leaning San Francisco join their side. They also have the support of at least 20 GOP state attorneys general and Phoenix officials.

The crux of the fight involves the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which bars "cruel and unusual punishments." The Supreme Court will determine whether preventing the homeless from squatting on public property amounts to that standard.

Attorneys who represent the homeless of Grant Pass believe it does and are urging the nation's highest court to let the lower court's ruling stand. "For years, political leaders have chosen to tolerate encampments as an alternative to meaningfully addressing the western region’s severe housing shortage," they wrote.

"As the homelessness crisis has escalated, these amici have faced intense public backlash for their failed policies, and it is easier to blame the courts than to take responsibility for finding a solution," the attorneys said. It's unclear which way the court will find, but the choice to pick up the matter again may be promising for the city of Grant Pass.

In 2019, the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal from a lower court ruling that found that outdoor encampments can't be deemed illegal when there is no alternative. The excuse was that the people sleeping on the streets couldn't be punished "on the false premise they had a choice in the matter."

Perhaps there's some truth to that when homelessness, by definition, means they have no indoor place to live. However, a statement from Ed Johnson, who is the head attorney for the homeless and director of litigation at Oregon Law Center, takes that idea a step further.

"The fact is the Ninth Circuit’s narrow ruling is consistent with decades of Supreme Court precedent. The U.S. Constitution does not allow cities to punish people for having an involuntary status, including the status of being involuntarily homeless," Johnson said in a statement.

"We look forward to presenting our case to the Court," Johnson added. What's missing from these false outpourings of sympathy is the reality that decriminalizing homelessness encourages more of it.

Homelessness is about more than the lack of housing, as many of these people suffer from drug addiction and mental health issues. None of these situations are a conscious choice, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't be dealt with using the full force of the law.

Nobody is calling for homeless people to be thrown in jail. However, laws are meant to protect people who lawfully live in places like San Francisco or Grant Pass from crime, poverty, and human waste products that come with allowing squatters and tent cities.

Written By:
Christine Favocci

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