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Supreme Court allows cities to penalize homeless people sleeping in public

A line of tents is set up along a sidewalk. Big, green, leafy trees are in the background, as the tent encampment is in front of a public park.
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A tent encampment crops up on a city sidewalk in Denver. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a six-year-old federal appeals court ruling that said cities could not enforce anti-camping laws if not enough shelter beds were available. Advocates worry the ruling will criminalize people experiencing homelessness.

On Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court gave cities more leeway to punish people for sleeping outside. The decision could have major implications for how localities approach homelessness.

The case began in Grants Pass, Ore., where people experiencing homelessness sued the city, saying strict laws barring camping on public property made it nearly impossible to be homeless there. Those who violate the ordinances are subject to fines.

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But in a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Grants Pass, findingthe city’s laws don’t amount to cruel and unusual punishment under the constitution. It also overturned a six-year-old federal appeals court ruling from a Boise, Idaho, case, which held cities can’t enforce anti-camping laws when there aren’t enough shelter beds.

Cities from across the West — from Las Vegas to Colorado Springs — told the high court those legal protections have hamstrung their ability to address a surge in homelessness while protecting public safety.

Advocates worry the decision could lead cities to scale up the criminalization of people experiencing homelessness without regard for the amount of shelter space available.

“Cities are now even more empowered to neglect proven housing-based solutions and to arrest or fine those with no choice but to sleep outdoors,” said Jesse Rabinowitz with the National Homelessness Law Center (NHLC).

The NHLC also argued anti-camping laws won’t address the root causes of homelessness, like a lack of affordable housing.

The ruling only directly addresses laws in states covered by 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, including Nevada, Idaho, Montana, and Idaho in the Mountain West. But the ruling will likely have repercussions beyond Western states.

“It could open the doors for more cities to enact more punitive ordinances, which we know doesn’t solve homelessness,” said Cathy Alderman, the chief communications and public policy officer for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.

In a statement, Boise Mayor Lauren McLean said under her leadership, the city’s approach to homelessness will not change as a result of the court decision. She highlighted efforts such as an expansion of permanent supportive housing.

The city of Grants Pass applauded the decision, but also said it’s committed to finding stable housing for unhoused residents.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Rachel Cohen is the Mountain West News Bureau reporter for KUNC. She covers topics most important to the Western region. She spent five years at Boise State Public Radio, where she reported from Twin Falls and the Sun Valley area, and shared stories about the environment and public health.