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Supreme Court OKs Local Crackdowns on Homelessness, as Advocates Warn of Chaos

Supreme Court OKs Local Crackdowns on Homelessness, as Advocates Warn of Chaos

The Supreme Court on Friday, June 28. (Valerie Plesch/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The U.S. Supreme Court鈥檚 on homelessness Friday will make it easier for elected officials and law enforcement authorities nationwide to fine and arrest people who live on streets and sidewalks, in broken-down vehicles, or within city parks 鈥 which could have far-reaching health consequences for homeless Americans and their communities.

In a 6-to-3 ruling in City of Grants Pass v. Johnson, the justices in the majority said allowing the targeting of homeless people occupying public spaces by enforcing bans on public sleeping or camping with criminal or civil penalties is not cruel and unusual punishment, even if there are no alternative shelter or housing options available for them.

鈥淚t鈥檚 hard to imagine the chaos that is going to ensue. It鈥檒l have horrible consequences for mental and physical health,鈥 said Ed Johnson, director of litigation at the Oregon Law Center and lead attorney representing homeless defendants in the case.

鈥淚f people aren鈥檛 allowed to engage in survival while living outside by having things like a blanket and a pillow, or a tarp and a sleeping bag, and they don鈥檛 have anywhere else to go, they can die,鈥 he said.

The case, the most consequential on homelessness in decades, comes amid widespread public frustration over the proliferation of homeless encampments 鈥 especially in Western cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Phoenix, and Portland, Oregon 鈥 and the unsafe and unsanitary conditions that often fester around them.

An estimated 653,100 people were homeless in the United States in 2023, according to , the vast majority residing in shanties, broken-down recreational vehicles, and sprawling tent camps scattered across urban and rural communities.

The Oregon city of Grants Pass, at the center of the legal battle, successfully argued that it was not cruel and unusual punishment to fine and arrest homeless people living outdoors or illegally camping on public property.

Mike Zacchino, a spokesperson for Grants Pass, issued a statement Friday that the city was 鈥済rateful鈥 to receive the decision and is committed to assisting residents struggling to find stable housing. Theane Evangelis, the city鈥檚 lead attorney, told the Supreme Court in April that if it couldn鈥檛 enforce its anticamping laws, 鈥渢he city鈥檚 hands will be tied. It will be forced to surrender its public spaces.鈥

A photo of people lining up to receive supplies out of advocates' trunks at a park in Oregon.
Homeless advocates serve hundreds of people during a weekly providing of groceries, warm food, supplies, and living essentials for the homeless community at Morrison Park in Grants Pass, Oregon, on March 28.(Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

In the majority opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch argued that the homelessness crisis is complex and has many causes, writing, 鈥淲ith encampments dotting neighborhood sidewalks, adults and children in these communities are sometimes forced to navigate around used needles, human waste, and other hazards to make their way to school, the grocery store, or work.鈥

However, Gorsuch wrote, the Eighth Amendment does not give the Supreme Court justices primary responsibility 鈥渇or assessing those causes and devising those responses.鈥 A handful of federal judges cannot 鈥渂egin to 鈥榤atch鈥 the collective wisdom the American people possess in deciding 鈥榟ow best to handle鈥 a pressing social question like homelessness,鈥 he wrote.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the decision focuses on the needs of local government and 鈥渓eaves the most vulnerable in our society with an impossible choice: Either stay awake or be arrested.鈥

Elected officials, both Republican and Democrat, have increasingly argued that life on the streets is making people sick 鈥 and they should be allowed to relocate people for health and safety.

鈥淚f government offers people help and they can鈥檛 or won鈥檛 accept it, there should be consequences. We have laws that need to be used,鈥 said Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who is an adviser to California Gov. Gavin Newsom on homelessness, referencing laws that allow the state to require mental health and addiction treatment, for instance.

The high court decision could further embolden cities to sweep encampments and could force homeless people to be more transient 鈥 constantly moving around to evade law enforcement. Sometimes they鈥檙e offered shelter, but often there is nowhere to go. Steinberg believes many cities will more aggressively sweep encampments and keep homeless people on the move, but he does not believe they should be fined or arrested.

鈥淚鈥檓 comfortable telling people that you can鈥檛 camp in public, but I would not criminalize it,鈥 he said. 鈥淪ome cities will fine and arrest people.鈥

Advocates for homeless people say constant relocations will further imperil the health of this population and magnify public health threats, such as the spread of communicable diseases. They fear conservative-leaning communities will criminalize street camping, pushing homeless people to liberal municipalities that provide housing assistance and services.

鈥淪ome cities have decided that they want to fine, arrest, and punish people for being homeless, and the majority opinion tells communities that they can go ahead and do that,鈥 said Steve Berg, chief policy officer for the National Alliance to End Homelessness. 鈥淚f communities really want less homelessness, they need to do what works, which is make sure people have access to housing and supportive services.鈥

As they disperse and relocate 鈥 and possibly get arrested or slapped with fines 鈥 they will lose connections to the doctors and nurses who provide primary and specialty care on the streets, some health care experts say.

鈥淚t just is going to contribute to more death and higher mortality rates,鈥 said Jim O鈥機onnell, the president of Boston鈥檚 国产精品视频 Care for the Homeless Program and an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. 鈥淚t鈥檚 tough, because there鈥檚 a public safety versus public health鈥 debate cities are struggling with.

As homeless people become sicker, they will get more expensive to treat, O鈥機onnell said.

鈥淪top thinking about the emergency room, which is cheap compared to what we actually see, which is homeless people being admitted to the ICU,鈥 he said. 鈥淚鈥檝e got 20-something patients at Mass General today taking a huge amount of money to care for.鈥

In Los Angeles, which has one of the biggest homeless populations in America, street medicine provider Brett Feldman predicts more patients will need emergency intensive care as chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease go untreated.

Patients on anti-addiction medication or those undergoing treatment to improve their mental health will also struggle, he said.

鈥淧eople are already getting moved and camps swept all the time, so we already know what happens,鈥 Feldman said. 鈥淧eople lose their medications; they lose track of us.鈥

Homeless people die at rates two to six times higher than residents living in stable housing, according to from the Los Angeles County Department of Public 国产精品视频. Drug overdoses and coronary artery disease were the top two causes of death since 2017.

Feldman said it may become harder to house people or place them into treatment programs.

鈥淲e rely on knowing where they are in order to find them,鈥 Feldman said. 鈥淎nd they rely on us knowing where they are to get their health care. And if we can鈥檛 find them, often they can鈥檛 complete their housing paperwork and they don鈥檛 get inside.鈥

A photo of tents on the sidewalk next to a road with a car driving by.
Tents line a sidewalk in Los Angeles, California, on Jan. 20.(Qian Weizhong/VCG via Getty Images)

The Biden administration has pushed states to expand the definition of health care to include housing. At least 19 are directing money from Medicaid 鈥 the state-federal health insurance program for low-income people 鈥 into housing aid.

California is going the biggest, pumping $12 billion into an ambitious Medicaid initiative largely to help homeless patients find housing, pay for it, and avoid eviction. It is also dramatically expanding street medicine services.

The Supreme Court decision could interrupt these programs, said Margot Kushel, a primary care doctor and homelessness researcher at the University of California-San Francisco.

鈥淣ow you鈥檙e going to see disconnections from those case managers and housing navigators and people just losing touch in the chaos and the shuffle,鈥 she said. 鈥淲hat鈥檚 worse, though, is we are going to lose the trust that is so essential to getting people to take their medications or stop their drug use and, ultimately, getting people into housing.鈥

Kushel said the ruling would make homelessness worse. 鈥淛ust having fines and jail time makes it easier for a landlord to reject you for housing,鈥 she said.

At the same time, Americans are increasingly frustrated by encampments spreading into neighborhoods, ringing public parks, and popping up near schools. The spread is marked by more trash, dirty needles, rats, and human excrement on sidewalks.

Local leaders across deep-blue California welcomed the decision from the conservative majority, which will allow them to fine and arrest homeless people, even if there鈥檚 nowhere for them to go. 鈥淭he Supreme Court today took decisive action that will ultimately make our communities safer,鈥 said Graham Knaus, CEO of the California State Association of Counties.

Newsom, a Democrat who leads a state with nearly 30% of the nation鈥檚 homeless population, said the decision gives state and local officials 鈥渢he definitive authority to implement and enforce policies to clear unsafe encampments from our streets,鈥 ending legal ambiguity that has 鈥渢ied the hands of local officials for years and limited their ability to deliver on common-sense measures to protect the safety and well-being of communities.鈥

This article was produced by KFF 国产精品视频 News, which publishes , an editorially independent service of the .