‘Inhumane’: Homelessness advocates slam Supreme Court decision upholding ban on sleeping outside

‘Inhumane’: Homelessness advocates slam Supreme Court decision upholding ban on sleeping outside
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(WASHINGTON) — Homelessness advocates are condemning the Supreme Court’s ruling that an Oregon city’s ordinance to bar anyone without a permanent residency from sleeping outside does not amount to “cruel and unusual” punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

In 2013, the Grants Pass city council attempted to ban anyone “from using a blanket, pillow or cardboard box for protection from the elements” while sleeping outside, threatening violators with citations and tickets. Lower courts initially found that this was “cruel and unusual punishment” under the Eighth Amendment.

The case, City of Grants Pass, Oregon v. Johnson, has major implications for the rising population of unhoused Americans and the disciplinary actions they face in public spaces, advocates say.

Across the country, homelessness has been on the rise since 2016.

The most recent report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development in December found that more than 650,000 people were experiencing homelessness on a single night in January 2023 across the country, a 12% increase from 2022. As this number rises, local legislators continue to implement bans on homeless encampments or sleeping outside.

Advocates say these policies don’t address the lack of affordable housing for the homeless and instead they criminalize people “for trying to survive” with nowhere to go, said Jesse Rabinowitz, campaign and communications director at the National Homelessness Law Center in a statement to ABC News.

He called the ruling “inhumane.”

Ann Oliva, CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, told ABC News that unhoused people are often forced to face the elements in winter and summer, which may cause further physical and emotional trauma. Oliva argues that taking away their possessions or adding further financial burden to the homeless only worsens the harm.

“It makes it harder for them to get jobs. It makes it harder for them to get it into apartment, because fines rack up, sometimes they turn into criminal charges and bench warrants,” said Oliva. “So it not only doesn’t end homelessness for anybody, it actually makes it worse for the people who are subject to these kinds of ordinances.”

The decision is a win for lawmakers across the country who have recently implemented similar bans on the homeless and restrictions on encampments or possessions in public spaces, but who have been faced with legal challenges.

When SCOTUS first agreed to hear the case in January, California Gov. Gavin Newsom called on the Supreme Court to “correct course and end the costly delays from lawsuits that have plagued our efforts to clear encampments and deliver services to those in need.”

The 6-3 SCOTUS opinion was authored by Justice Neil Gorsuch.

“Homelessness is complex. Its causes are many. So may be the public policy responses required to address it,” Gorsuch wrote. “At bottom, the question this case presents is whether the Eighth Amendment grants federal judges primary responsibility for assessing those causes and devising those responses. It does not.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in a dissent joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson, argued the ordinance punishes homeless people with nowhere else to go based on status.

“It is possible to acknowledge and balance the issues facing local governments, the humanity and dignity of homeless people, and our constitutional principles,” Sotomayor wrote. “Instead, the majority focuses almost exclusively on the needs of local governments and leaves the most vulnerable in our society with an impossible choice: Either stay awake or be arrested.”

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