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The Supreme Court Has Allowed Cities to Criminalize Homelessness

The Supreme Court Has Allowed Cities to Criminalize Homelessness

In the biggest decision on homelessness in decades, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that cities can fine or arrest homeless individuals for sleeping in public places.

On Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that cities have the authority to prohibit sleeping and camping in public spaces, and homeless individuals can be fined or arrested. The 6-3 decision, divided along ideological lines, overturned lower court decisions that had previously deemed such bans as “cruel and unusual punishment” under the Eighth Amendment if no alternative shelter was available.

Justice Neil Gorsuch, writing for the majority, acknowledged the complexity of homelessness and its varied causes but emphasized that federal judges are not best suited to dictate how cities should handle the issue.

“The Constitution’s Eighth Amendment serves many important functions, but it does not authorize federal judges to wrest those rights and responsibilities from the American people and in their place dictate this Nation’s homelessness policy,” he stated.

In her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued that the ruling ignores the needs of the most vulnerable individuals. She highlighted the biological necessity of sleep, asserting that the decision forces homeless individuals to choose between staying awake or facing arrest.

“This decision leaves a homeless person with an impossible choice,” she wrote.

The ruling is seen as a victory for Grants Pass, Oregon, which brought the case, as well as for numerous Western cities that have sought greater enforcement powers amidst rising homelessness. Local governments argued that previous lower court rulings restricted their ability to manage public spaces effectively, compromising public health and safety. These cities argued that they were hindered from addressing homeless encampments without first providing adequate shelter, a challenging requirement given the shortage of shelter beds and the unwillingness of some individuals to accept available shelter due to various restrictions.

However, advocates for the homeless believe the decision exacerbates the problem rather than solves it.

Rosanne Haggerty, President and Chief Executive Officer at nonprofit Community Solutions, a leader in homelessness solutions, called the decision “deeply disappointing.”

“Arresting or fining people for experiencing homelessness is cruel — and it won’t solve the problem,” she said. “Countless studies show we can’t police homelessness out of existence. But there are proven solutions to homelessness. It takes a community-wide effort to make sure that every person experiencing homelessness is accounted for and cared for.”

Street homelessness in the United States has risen dramatically, experiencing a 25 percent increase since 2017, according to the most recent report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Despite billions of federal dollars being spent on support services and shelter space, cities still struggle to keep up with the demand, especially in West Coast areas where homelessness is pervasive and encampments are sprawling. An estimated 400,000 individuals are currently experiencing homelessness, and with 59% of Americans living only one paycheck away from homelessness, that number is expected to grow over the next several years.

“Leaders have a choice,” Haggerty said. “The law now allows them to punish people for experiencing homelessness, but this won’t solve the problem. Cities can make a different choice. By choosing proven solutions to homelessness, together we can create communities where everyone has a home.”

© 2023 RELEVANT Media Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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