Supreme Court to consider whether cities can ticket homeless people

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The Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments Monday over a challenge to a law letting cities fine homeless people, potentially radically changing the lives of the hundreds of thousands without homes.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that cities cannot ticket homeless people for camping in public when there were no alternative shelters available, though the municipalities backing the suit want that opinion overturned.

The city and town officials argue that the restrictions prevent them from implementing “common sense” laws against camping in certain public places, while homeless advocates say an overturn could effectively criminalize homeless people existing.

The suit is led by the city of Grants Pass, Ore., which implemented an anti-camping law that would fine homeless people $295 per night.

The town’s attorney said blocking the law has “made it impossible for cities to address growing encampments.”

“And they’re unsafe, unhealthy and problematic for everyone, especially those who are experiencing homelessness,” lawyer Theane Evangelis told The Associated Press.

Rates of homelessness are at record-high levels as housing prices continue to soar. Homelessness is most common on the West Coast, where more expensive rent costs and milder temperatures make going without housing more likely.

There are about 650,000 homeless people in the country, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, with about a third of them living on the West Coast.

The argument of the case centers on the Eighth Amendment, with homeless advocates arguing that ticketing people without homes qualifies as “cruel and unusual punishment.”

“For years, political leaders have chosen to tolerate encampments as an alternative to meaningfully addressing the western region’s severe housing shortage,” attorneys representing the city’s homeless population wrote to the court in January, arguing against taking on the appeal.

Among the leaders lobbying the court to overturn the appellate ruling is California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D). In an amicus brief filed last month, Newsom — who has made fighting homelessness a marquis issue — argued that preventing municipalities from ticketing homeless people hampers law enforcement.

“Encampments are dangerous — period. California is investing billions to build housing and provide the services needed to get people out of tents and into safer situations,” Newsom said in a statement. “However, our best efforts are being blocked because of sweeping injunctions that delay progress and fail to provide any consistent guidance for local authorities to abide by.”

“The United States Supreme Court can establish a balance that allows enforcement of reasonable limits on camping in public spaces, while still respecting the dignity of those living on our streets,” he continued. “By setting out a clear rule, the Court can empower state and local governments to enact and enforce compassionate policies that will help save lives, strengthen their communities, and ultimately work to stem the tide of this homelessness crisis.”

The Justice Department has taken a similar position, advocating for the appellate decision to be overturned, while also stating that homelessness writ large should not be criminalized.

The mayors of San Francisco and Phoenix and 20 Republican attorneys general from around the country also encouraged the Supreme Court to take on the case.

A ruling is expected by late June.

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