Supreme Court poised to approve municipal bans on public sleeping, setting legal precedent for homelessness
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Quick Hit:

The U.S. Supreme Court appears to be leaning towards supporting an Oregon city's crackdown on public sleeping, a decision that could have far-reaching implications for the escalating homelessness crisis under the Biden administration. The case, which challenges lower court rulings that deemed it "cruel and unusual" to fine or jail individuals sleeping on public land if no shelter is available, could redefine how cities and states manage the growing number of people living in tents, cars, and on the streets.

Key Details:

  • The case centers on the city of Grants Pass, Oregon, which has no public shelter but has enacted a local law banning people from sleeping with a blanket or pillow on any public land.
  • Lower courts have previously ruled that fining or jailing someone for sleeping on public land if there's no adequate shelter available is a violation of the Eighth Amendment.
  • The Supreme Court's decision could significantly impact the lives of the over 250,000 people currently living in parks, on streets, and in their vehicles across the U.S.

Diving Deeper:

The Supreme Court's more liberal justices have suggested that the city's law amounts to unlawfully targeting individuals simply because they are homeless. Justice Sotomayor argued that "You don't arrest babies who have blankets over them. You don't arrest people who are sleeping on the beach," while Justice Kagan stated that "Sleeping is a biological necessity. It's sort of like breathing. ... But I wouldn't expect you to criminalize breathing in public."

However, the court's conservative justices have questioned where the line should be drawn between someone's conduct, which can be legally punished, and a status they are unable to change, which cannot be punished. They also suggested that homelessness is a complex policy problem and questioned whether courts should be responsible for managing it.

States and cities across the U.S. have struggled to manage record rates of homelessness. Some have found ways to limit encampments and even clear them out without violating the 9th Circuit rulings. Others have taken a more sweeping approach with camping bans. Florida's governor recently signed a law that seeks to move unhoused people off public property altogether and into government-run encampments.

Regardless of the Supreme Court's decision, the homelessness crisis is unlikely to be resolved without addressing the shortage of permanent, affordable housing. The city of Grants Pass is short by 4,000 housing units; nationally, the deficit is in the millions. This shortage has pushed rents to levels many cannot afford, which advocates say is a main driver of rising homelessness.

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