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Justices Inclined To Let Cities Crack Down On Homeless Encampments

The Supreme Court seems ready to let cities crack down on homeless encampments. In arguments on Monday, conservative justices questioned lower-court findings that ordinances restricting sleeping in public amounted to unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment, reports the Wall Street Journal. The city of Grants Pass, Oreg., outlaws sleeping in cars parked on the street or in public parks with a blanket, but has no shelter able to accommodate hundreds of homeless people who live there. The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found such measures effectively criminalized homelessness, violating Eighth Amendment cases that forbid punishing people for their status rather than actions. Courts in the Ninth Circuit have issued injunctions that limit cities’ enforcement of such ordinances. 

Members of the Supreme Court’s conservative majority suggested that the Ninth Circuit’s approach, which cities argue hamstrings their efforts to address homelessness, intruded on the discretion officials need to govern their communities. Helping the homeless is difficult and costly, said Chief Justice John Roberts, and “municipalities have competing priorities.” For instance, he said, “Do you build a homeless shelter or take care of the lead pipes” contaminating the water supply? “What if there’s not enough fire protection? Which one do you prioritize?” Liberal justices said that Grants Pass had singled out homeless people when enforcing its antisleeping or camping laws. Police officers have testified that “if a stargazer wants to take a blanket or sleeping bag out at night to watch the stars and falls asleep, you don’t arrest them,” said Justice Sonia Sotomayor. “You don’t arrest babies who have blankets over their heads. You don’t arrest people who are sleeping on the beach ... You only arrest people who don’t have a home,” she told the lawyer for Grants Pass, Theane Evangelis. Federal data show that there are more than 650,000 unhoused people across the U.S. on a given night, the highest number since officials began surveying the unhoused population in 2007.


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