Kelsey Reichmann

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court agreed on Friday to decide if cities can punish homeless people for sleeping on public lands.

The case before the court stems from Grants Pass, Oregon, but the longer legal battle over criminalizing homelessness stretches across the West Coast. In 2006, people living on Los Angeles’ Skid Row sued the city for ordinances against sitting, lying or sleeping on streets, sidewalks or other public ways.

Citing the Eighth Amendment, Skid Row residents claimed the city’s ordinances amounted to cruel and unusual punishments against homeless people. A federal court disagreed, finding that the laws penalized conduct, not status. The Ninth Circuit reversed, however, finding the Eight Amendment protects involuntary conduct that is inseparable from the status of homelessness.

Los Angeles asked the appeals court to rehear the case en banc, but before that could happen, the parties settled. The Ninth Circuit then vacated its opinion.

People living on the streets of Boise, Idaho, revived the issue with their own case. When the Boise case reached the Ninth Circuit, the appeals court ruled that any punishment for public camping amounted to cruel and unusual punishment if the person had no access to an alternative shelter.

The Ninth Circuit declined to hear the case en banc, and the Supreme Court declined Boise’s petition for review.

The Boise decision led to a flurry of suits from other cities, like Grants Pass. The southern Oregon city bans sleeping or camping on public sidewalks, streets or alleyways. Instead of criminal fines or jail terms, Grants Pass issues civil citations for violations of its law. Two park regulation violations result in 30-day bans from city parks.

A federal court found that the city’s ordinances against homeless people amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. The court expanded the Boise decision by holding that camping on public property was protected, and said the Eighth Amendment prohibits civil enforcement of city ordinances.

Grants Pass was prohibited from enforcing its public camping ordinances during daytime hours unless it gave 24-hour notice. Nighttime enforcement was banned completely.

The Ninth Circuit affirmed.

Grants Pass then urged the Supreme Court to take up the case, arguing the Ninth Circuit had broken with the California Supreme Court and the Eleventh Circuit in striking down public camping ordinances. The city said the high court’s review was critically important to the western U.S., which is facing a humanitarian crisis over homelessness.

“Cities want to help those in encampments get the services they need while ensuring that our communities remain safe, but they find themselves hamstrung in responding to public encampments and the drug overdoses, murders, sexual assaults, diseases, and fires that inevitably accompany them,” wrote Theane Evangelis, an attorney with Gibson Dunn representing the city. “Even when coupled with offers of shelter and other services, efforts to enforce commonsense camping regulations have been met with injunctions.”

Homeless people in Grants Pass place the blame on the city, citing their limited options for shelter. There are no homeless shelters in Grants Pass, and only two privately operated housing programs, which serve a mere fraction of the homeless population. They claim Grants Pass has criminalized their existence in the city.

“Given the universal biological necessity of sleeping and of using a blanket to survive in cold weather, the city’s enforcement of its ordinances meant that its homeless residents could not remain within city limits without facing punishment,” wrote Kelsi Brown Corkran, an attorney with the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University who represents the homeless individuals fighting the laws.

The case out of Grants Pass was one of five that received a grant from the Supreme Court on Friday. The justices also agreed to hear a labor dispute involving Starbucks, unemployment claims in Alabama, an arbitration dispute from delivery drivers in Arizona and an immigration dispute.

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