US Supreme Court to hear arguments over homeless public sleeping bans similar to Florida law

US Supreme Court to hear arguments over homeless public sleeping bans similar to Florida law

Video above from March 20, 2024: DeSantis signs public sleeping bill, talks spring break in South Florida

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on Monday in a case that will determine if it’s constitutional to ban homeless people from sleeping in public — a case that could impact a similar, recently-enacted Florida law.

The question in front of the court is: “Does the enforcement of generally applicable laws regulating camping on public property constitute ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ prohibited by the Eighth Amendment?”

While the case in front of the Supreme Court does not stem from the Florida law — it surrounds City of Grants Pass v. Johnson — the eventual ruling could potentially have an impact on the Florida law.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill in March to ban public sleeping in the state, but promises expanded resources.

The state Department of Children and Families would oversee local governments that set up designated areas for the homeless to camp for up to a year under the new law, which takes effect Oct. 1. Anyone using those encampments would be prohibited from using alcohol or illegal drugs, with sanitation and security to be provided.

Critics of the Florida law said it doesn’t do anything to address homelessness, but instead just wants to hide them from public view.

“This bill does not and it will not address the more pressing and root cause of homelessness,” said Democratic state Sen. Shevrin Jones during a debate this year. “We are literally reshuffling the visibility of unhoused individuals with no exit strategy for people who are experiencing homelessness.”

Grants Pass v. Johnson culminates years of struggle over how far cities can go to discourage homeless people from residing within their borders, and whether or when criminal sanctions for actions such as sleeping in public are permissible.

Officials across the political spectrum — from Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom in California, which has nearly 30% of the nation’s homeless population, to a group of 22 conservative-led states — have filed briefs in the case, saying lower court rulings have hamstrung their ability to deal with encampments.

Like many Western communities, Grants Pass has struggled for years with a burgeoning homeless population. A decade ago, City Council members discussed how to make it “uncomfortable enough … in our city so they will want to move on down the road.” From 2013 to 2018, the city said it issued 500 citations for camping or sleeping in public, including in vehicles, with fines that could reach hundreds of dollars.

But a 2018 decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals changed the calculus. The court, whose jurisdiction includes nine Western states, held that while communities are allowed to prohibit tents in public spaces, it violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment to give people criminal citations for sleeping outside when they had no place else to go.

Four years later, in a case challenging restrictions in Grants Pass, the court expanded that ruling, holding that civil citations also can be unconstitutional.

Civil rights groups and attorneys for the homeless residents who challenged the restrictions in 2018 insist people shouldn’t be punished for lacking housing. Officials throughout the West have overstated the impact of the court decisions to distract from their own failings, they argued.

Grants Pass Mayor Sara Bristol and advocates have sought to open a shelter with fewer rules, or a designated area for homeless people to camp. But charged debates emerged over where that would be and who would pay for it.

While support for a designated campground appears to be growing, the problem remains: Many homeless people in Grants Pass have nowhere else to live. And some advocates fear a return of strict anti-camping enforcement will push people to the forest outside town, farther from help.

Even if the Supreme Court overturns the 9th Circuit’s decisions, Bristol said, “we still have 200 people who have to go somewhere.”

“We have to accept that homelessness is a reality in America,” she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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