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Supreme Court empowers cities to ban homeless encampments

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Supreme Court says it's “not cruel or unusual” to stop homeless people from sleeping on the streets

The Supreme Court ruled Friday that cities can enforce laws restricting homeless encampments on sidewalks and other public property. The decision was 6 to 3. It divided liberals and conservatives.

Judges He disagreed with the decision of the 9th Circuit Court in San Francisco. The court also ruled that city officials banning homeless people from sleeping on the streets and in parks is not “cruel and unusual” punishment.

“Homelessness is complex,” Justice Neil M. Gorsuch wrote for the court. “Its causes are diverse and therefore the public policy responses needed to address it are likely to be diverse as well.”

Gorsuch said the Eighth Amendment, which protects against cruel and unusual punishment, “does not allow federal judges to strip the American people of those rights and responsibilities and instead dictate the country's homelessness policy.”

Three liberal justices dissented.

“For people who do not have access to housing, this is a punishment for being homeless,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor said. “It is outrageous and unconstitutional. Punishing people because of their homeless status is 'cruel and unusual' under the Eighth Amendment.”

The decision does not mandate that cities take tougher enforcement measures against homeless people, but it gives some cities the freedom to do so.

Is it really up to local governments to decide how to handle this?


Gorsuch wrote that people will disagree about what the best policy response is.

“Fundamentally, the question this case raises is whether the Eighth Amendment gives federal judges the primary responsibility to evaluate these causes and craft responses,” Gorsuch said. “It doesn't.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement that the ruling gives state and local officials “decisive authority to implement and enforce policies to remove unsafe encampments from our cities.”

What does City Hall think?

Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass called the Supreme Court's decision “disappointing” and said it should not be used to jail homeless people or drive them from city to city.

Bass, who declared a homelessness emergency in December 2022, indicated the ruling would not change how she approaches the crisis, which she has focused on moving homeless Angelenos out of encampments and into hotels, motels and other temporary housing.

“The only way to address this crisis is with housing and supportive services to help people shelter in place,” she said. “The City of Los Angeles will continue to lead with this approach that helped us get thousands more Angelenos sheltered indoors last year than any year before.”

What are officials in other cities saying?

Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris Mayor Paris said the Supreme Court “finally has a good decision” and that the city plans to “take more aggressive action,” adding that she isn't concerned about “appropriate encampments,” but is concerned about people “camping in residential areas and next to shopping centers.”

“We're going to move them over very quickly,” he said, adding that the city has a “state-of-the-art homeless shelter” with beds available.

Paris agreed with Gorsuch that the decision should rest with city officials, saying “that's democracy.”

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, one of the cities that asked the Supreme Court to hear the appeal, said the ruling “provides much-needed clarity on how we enforce city laws against unsafe encampments.”

But, he added, “our strategy on homelessness remains unchanged.”

“It's clear that the 1,000 new shelters we've added over the past three years have helped reduce street homelessness, and we will continue to pursue adding more beds,” he said in a statement.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed welcomed the Supreme Court's review of the case as part of a broader effort to crack down on crime and homelessness in the city over the past year, saying the ruling “will help cities like San Francisco manage their public spaces more effectively and efficiently.”

Breed has long lamented that people living on the streets often refuse shelter even as the city pours more resources into temporary housing and treatment services.

“San Francisco has invested heavily in shelter and housing, and our hard-working city employees will continue to lead the way in providing those services,” Mayor Breed said in a prepared statement. “But too often these proposals are rejected, and we need to be able to enforce our laws, especially to prevent long-term encampments.”

For more details on this decision, see reporter David G. Savage, and reporters Brittney Mejia, David Zarnizer and Hannah Wylie provide analysis.

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