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US Supreme Court eyes anti-camping laws used against the homeless

Reuters WORLD
Published April 22,2024

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday confronted the nation's homelessness crisis as the justices began hearing arguments over the legality of local laws that are used against people camping on public streets and parks in a case involving a southwest Oregon city's vagrancy policy.

The justices were considering an appeal by Grants Pass, Oregon of a lower court's ruling that enforcing the city's anti-camping ordinances against homeless people when there is no shelter space available violates the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments.

The arguments were ongoing.

The case requires the nine justices to tackle the complex societal problem of homelessness that continues to vex public officials nationwide as municipalities face chronic shortages of affordable housing. On any given night in the United States, more than 600,000 people are homeless, according to U.S. government estimates.

The case is focused on three ordinances in Grants Pass, a city of roughly 38,000 people, that target sleeping and camping in public streets, alleyways and parks. Violators are fined $295, and repeat offenders can be criminally prosecuted for trespass, punishable by up to 30 days in jail.

Advocates for the homeless, various liberal legal groups and other critics have said laws like these criminalize people simply for being homeless and for actions they cannot avoid, such as sleeping in public. They point to a 1962 Supreme Court ruling that the Eighth Amendment barred punishing individuals based on their status.

Proponents including various government officials have said the laws are a needed tool for maintaining public safety. Lower courts have "hampered efforts to address encampments and confront the homelessness crisis," Democratic California Governor Gavin Newsom told the justices in a written filing.

"There is no compassion in stepping over people in the streets, and there is no dignity in allowing people to die in dangerous, fire-prone encampments," Newsom added.

The case, which began in 2018, involved three homeless people who filed a class-action lawsuit seeking to block the measures impacting them in Grants Pass. One of the plaintiffs has since died.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Clarke in Medford, Oregon ruled that the Grants Pass "policy and practice of punishing homelessness" by prohibiting sleeping outside while using a blanket or bedding, violates the Eighth Amendment.

The city had defended itself in the case in part by noting that homeless people have alternatives outside the city, including nearby undeveloped federal land, county campsites or state rest stops. The judge said that argument "sheds light on the city's attitude towards its homeless citizens" by seeking to drive them out or punish them if they stay.

The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2022 upheld Clarke's injunction against enforcing the anti-camping ordinances "for the mere act of sleeping outside with rudimentary protection from the elements, or for sleeping in their car at night, when there is no other place in the City for them to go."

Lawyers for Grants Pass said that under the 9th Circuit's ruling, the Eighth Amendment "would immunize numerous other purportedly involuntary acts from prosecution, such as drug use by addicts, public intoxication by alcoholics and possession of child pornography by pedophiles."

The plaintiffs urged the Supreme Court to rule in their favor.

"It is difficult to imagine a more blameless offense than resting outside with a blanket to survive the cold when you have nowhere else to go," their lawyers said in a written brief.

A ruling is due by the end of June.