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Supreme Court case: Can cities punish unhoused people for sleeping outside?


Today, the U.S. Supreme Court takes up homelessness, with arguments over whether people can be punished for sleeping outside.


The decision could have a big impact on a quarter of a million people estimated to be living in tents and cars and the cities struggling to manage this.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Jennifer Ludden joins us now to explain. Jennifer, we've reported on how cities and counties all over the country are trying to figure out what to do about the growing number of tent encampments, so how did this issue get to the Supreme Court?

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Well, it started with two court cases out west in Boise, Idaho, and then in the small city of Grants Pass, Ore. In both, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that if there is no shelter space available, then to fine or jail somebody for sleeping on public land is cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. Now, the Supreme Court declined to take up the Boise case back in 2019, but it did agree to hear an appeal from Grants Pass, and a slew of other cities and states, led by both Democrats and Republicans, also urged the justices to hear today's case.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So why do Grants Pass and other places say that it should not be considered cruel and unusual to fine and jail homeless people if there's no place to shelter them?

LUDDEN: For one thing, they say camping restrictions are commonplace across the U.S., and they're needed because sprawling homeless encampments - either tents or people living in cars - are a threat to public health and safety, especially for those living in them. But also, they are people suffering mental health episodes and drug overdoses in public. But cities say these court decisions have really tied their hands when they try to keep these spaces open and safe for everyone. Theane Evangelis is the lawyer for Grants Pass, and she says the 9th Circuit's rulings have spawned dozens of lawsuits, and they've turned federal judges into micromanagers of local homelessness policy.

THEANE EVANGELIS: It is doing more harm than good to put this issue before the courts to solve, and it's led to endless litigation and paralysis at a time when we most desperately need action.

LUDDEN: Cities also say they just need more clarity to tackle this really complex problem. For example, what exactly constitutes adequate shelter, and what if there is a bed open but someone refuses to go?

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So what's then the argument on behalf of the unhoused people living outside?

LUDDEN: They say Grants Pass rules were more aggressive than most places, that people could be ticketed and fined for sleeping with a blanket or a pillow in any public space at any time and that the city's real goal was to push people out of town. Ed Johnson of the Oregon Law Center represents homeless people in the Grants Pass case. He says the city effectively targeted not just their conduct, but their very status of being homeless, which courts have said is not allowed.

ED JOHNSON: Punishing someone for doing something they have no control over, no ability to not do, is not going to end that status. In fact, not only does criminalization not work; it makes matters worse.

LUDDEN: And advocates say that's because it's even harder for someone to get housing if they have a criminal record or debt from fines. Johnson also says it's expensive to police and jail people, and it can divert money away from solving the bigger problem with things like more affordable housing.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So that makes me think, then, what about the overall problem?

LUDDEN: Right. More than a quarter of a million people are living outside right now, and whichever way this court decides, it is not likely to change that. Many places just don't have enough shelter beds, and they don't have enough permanent affordable housing. That severe shortage and sky-high rents is fueling homelessness, but even where cities are building more housing, it is going to take years.

MARTÍNEZ: That is NPR's Jennifer Ludden. Jennifer, thanks.

LUDDEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Jennifer Ludden
Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.