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Cities granted power by Supreme Court to fine, arrest homeless who sleep in public spaces

homeless street tent
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The unhoused population may face more difficulties ahead as the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion handed down last month gives cities more power to craft laws to prohibit sleeping on the streets. The ruling could lead to an increase in ordinances imposing fines and potential jail sentences on an already vulnerable population.

In City of Grants Pass v. Johnson, by a vote of six to three along party lines, the justices weighed in on an Oregon case where the city government banned camping on publicly owned property and bridges.

In the case, three homeless individuals sued the city claiming the ordinances violated the Eighth Amendment and imposed cruel punishment. Lower courts agreed that the ordinances could only be enforced when there were more available shelter beds than the number of homeless people in the area. However, the Supreme Court conservative justices disagreed with the lower courts in its opinion.

Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who disagreed with the court’s opinion, said in her dissent that sleep is a necessity, “not a crime.”

Sleeping outside, she argued, is the only option for some people.

The decision gives “free reign to local officials who prefer pointless and expensive arrests and imprisonment, rather than real solutions,” said Ann Oliva, CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, in an article in USA Today.

Police, city governments and unhoused individuals continue to be at odds across the nation.

In Waynesboro, trespassing orders were served last year for a homeless encampment on private property.

In Charlottesville, city police were accused of kicking homeless individuals sleeping in a city park leading city officials to temporarily suspend closing hours at local parks.

In 2023, more than 650,000 people in the United States experienced homelessness; 40 percent of unsheltered residents slept under bridges, on sidewalks, in cars, parks, abandoned buildings and other public locations.

Homeless advocates point to a number of reasons that individuals may not go to shelters even when they are available including strict policies related to drugs, alcohol, religion, property and pets. Other individuals may be banned from local shelters for violating rules or conduct policies.

Read more about housing insecurity on Augusta Free Press.

Crystal Graham

Crystal Graham

Crystal Abbe Graham is the regional editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1999 graduate of Virginia Tech, she has worked for nearly 25 years as a reporter and editor for several Virginia publications, written a book, and garnered more than a dozen Virginia Press Association awards for writing and graphic design. She was the co-host of "Viewpoints," a weekly TV news show, and co-host of Virginia Tonight, a nightly TV news show. Her work on "Virginia Tonight" earned her a national Telly award for excellence in television.