Supreme Court To Hear Case on Fining Homeless

Homeless person sleeping in public | Image by Sean Gallup / Staff/Getty Images

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case from a city in Oregon next week that will impact how cities nationwide address homeless encampments on public property.

Arguments are set to be heard on April 22. The outcome of the case will set a precedent for cities such as Dallas that are grappling with a homelessness and vagrancy crisis. At the heart of the issue is whether cities have the right to fine individuals and dismantle homeless encampments on public property when there is allegedly nowhere else for them to go.

The case originates from Grants Pass, Oregon, a small town in the southern part of the state that has as many as 600 homeless sleeping on the streets at any given time. There is just one shelter in the city, a church-based mission that provides 138 beds. The church has strict requirements, including no smoking, drugs, alcohol, or pets, and shelter guests must attend church.

A 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2022 that the City of Grants Pass could not enforce a local ordinance that prohibits persons “from using a blanket, pillow, or cardboard box for protection from the elements,” as the Associated Press reported.

Another case argued within the same circuit upheld a lower court’s ruling blocking anti-camping ordinances in San Francisco.

The appeals court ruled in a case out of Boise, Idaho, in 2018 that fining the homeless and dismantling their camps was unconstitutional, claiming that such actions amount to “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Many cities have blamed court rulings such as these for creating difficulties in addressing homelessness, while attorneys and civil rights groups claim the cause of the problem is a lack of meaningful action on the part of municipal and state officials.

“For years, political leaders have chosen to tolerate encampments as an alternative to meaningfully addressing the western region’s severe housing shortage,” attorneys wrote regarding the 2018 Boise case, as reported by AP. “It is easier to blame the courts than to take responsibility for finding a solution.”

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