The Supreme Court Weighs Whether Cities Can Criminalize Homelessness

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On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court held oral arguments around whether or not cities can impose punishments upon unhoused people for sleeping outside if they are unable to go to find shelter.

The high court previously declined hearing a comparable case from Boise, Idaho in 2019. But in the past four years, homelessness rates across the country have increased dramatically. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines homelessness as including both sheltered people living in emergency shelters, transitional shelters and hotels as well as unsheltered people who live outdoors in cars, abandoned buildings, deemed unfit for human habitation.

Additionally, if someone is unable to stay with a friend longer than 14 days, they also fall under this classification. As of a January 2023, count, there were 653,104 homeless Americans.

In the case at hand, Grants Pass, a rural town in Oregon, began issuing fines of $295 to people who were sleeping outside due to skyrocketing housing costs and an increase in tents in public areas. Similar to the lower court’s ruling in Boise, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals based out of San Francisco, “struck down the law under its holding that banning camping in places without enough shelter beds amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.”

As in most of their high-profile cases, the justices appear to be split along ideological lines. “Sleeping is a biological necessity. It’s sort of like breathing…But I wouldn’t expect you to criminalize breathing in public,” said liberal Justice Elena Kagan. “You don’t arrest babies who have blankets over them. You don’t arrest people who are sleeping on the beach,” stated Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

But on the conservative side, Justice Clarence Thomas skeptically asked, “Have we ever applied the Eighth Amendment to civil penalties?” Justice Samuel Alito queried, “What if the person finds that person in a homeless state because of prior life choices or their refusal to make future life choices?”

The issue at the crux of the argument “is whether Grants Pass treats homelessness as a ‘status.’ Doing so could run afoul of a 1962 case, Robinson v. California, which held that it violated the Eighth Amendment to make drug addiction as a ‘status’ illegal,” ABC News reports.

If the high court decides to rule in favor of the city of Oregon, there would be far-reaching implications on unhoused people currently struggling to make ends meet in cities across the country, and disproportionately impact Black people.

According to a 2023 article published in the Journal of Ethnic Health Disparities, “[h]omelessness is a public health crisis affecting millions of Americans every year.” In addition, “Black Americans are four times as likely to experience homelessness during their lives compared to white Americans.”

The Supreme Court is expected to release their decision before the end of June 2024. However, the Biden administration has asked the high court to remand the case, meaning to send it back to the lower court. The White House believes additional evidentiary findings are necessary in order to make a final ruling.

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