Some cities facing homelessness crisis applaud Supreme Court decision, while others push back

SEATTLE (AP) — A decision by the U.S. Supreme Court allowing cities to enforce bans on sleeping outside in public spaces will allow San Francisco to begin clearing homeless encampments that have plagued the city, the mayor said Friday as she applauded the ruling.

The case is the most significant on the issue to come before the high court in decades and comes as cities across the country have wrestled with the politically complicated issue of how to deal with a rising number of people without a permanent place to live and public frustration over related health and safety issues.

“We will continue to lead with services, but we also can’t continue to allow people to do what they want on the streets of San Francisco, especially when we have a place for them to go,” San Francisco Mayor London N. Breed, a Democrat, said in the wake of the 6-3 ruling.

Breed said she will review the ruling with the City Attorney’s Office before implementing any new policies, and the city will provide training to those clearing camps.

But the ruling was not welcomed everywhere and some cities, such as Seattle, said their approach to encampments will not change. A spokesperson for the Portland, Oregon, mayor’s office said it was prevented by a state law from making major changes based on the court decision.

Cody Bowman, a spokesperson for Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, a Democrat who has seen his two terms buffeted by discontent over the city’s homeless crisis, said they hoped the decision would push the state Legislature to take up the issue and “see this opportunity to consider the tools cities truly need to manage public camping, provide sufficient shelter, and keep our streets safe and clean.”

Boise, Idaho’s mayor, a Democrat, likewise said the city would not change its approach to those sleeping in public spaces, which includes case management and supportive housing.

“In Boise, we take care of people. Criminalizing homelessness has never, and will never, solve the problems associated with homelessness,” said Mayor Lauren McLean. “We must address the root causes with proven strategies, like permanent supportive housing, that empower our residents to stay housed and thrive in their community.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is scheduled to sign a state budget in the coming days that includes another $250 million in grants for local governments to clear homeless encampments, said the ruling gives state and local officials “the definitive authority" to enforce policies that clear unwanted encampments.

“This decision removes the legal ambiguities that have tied 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 our communities,” Newsom said in a statement after the ruling, which came the same day Los Angeles released an annual count of the homeless population.

Sara Rankin, a professor of law at Seattle University who direct its Homeless Rights Advocacy Project, said the decision will likely result in a type of free-for-all for cities banning people from sleeping on the streets. But she said state constitutional provisions and other federal constitutional provisions could then be invoked.

“I think a number of cities are going to misread this as a green light for open season on unhoused folks,” she said. “But when they do that they’ll do it at their peril because I think that lawyers are going to come back at them under other theories that are still available to them, that are left untouched by today’s decision.”

The case came from the rural Oregon town of Grants Pass, which appealed a ruling striking down local ordinances that fined people $295 for sleeping outside after tents began crowding public parks. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over the nine Western states, has held since 2018 that such bans violate the Eighth Amendment in areas where there aren’t enough shelter beds.

Jesse Rabinowitz, the communications and campaign director at the National Homelessness Law Center, said he worries this decision will empower cities to focus even more on arresting people sleeping outside, rather than focusing on proven solutions.

“There are encampments in California and D.C. and New York, not because there aren’t laws to punish people, but because there’s not enough housing that meets everybody’s needs,” he said. “And this case will make it harder to focus on the true solutions.”