US Supreme Court to review anti-camping laws that impact homeless

By Andrew Chung

(Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear an Oregon city’s bid to enforce local laws against people camping on public property, teeing up a legal fight over a homelessness crisis that has vexed municipalities across the Western United States.

The justices took up an appeal by Grants Pass, a city of roughly 40,000 people in southern Oregon, of a lower court’s ruling that found that the ordinances – which make it illegal to camp on sidewalks, streets, parks or other public places – violate the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibition against “cruel and unusual” punishment.

Three homeless individuals filed a class-action complaint in 2018 against Grants Pass, arguing that the anti-camping laws violated the Eighth Amendment. Violations can lead to civil fines, bans from city property, and criminal prosecution for trespass.

Grants Pass has between 50 and 600 homeless people living within the city, and not enough shelter beds to house them, according to court files.

Theane Evangelis, an attorney representing Grants Pass, said she looks forward to presenting the case.

The ruling in the case by the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and in a similar one from Idaho, “have contributed to the growing problem of encampments in cities across the West. These decisions are legally wrong and have tied the hands of local governments as they work to address the urgent homelessness crisis,” Evangelis said.

The appeal by Grants Pass has garnered support from numerous western cities and states, where the 9th Circuit decision applies.

“The issue before the court is whether cities can punish homeless residents simply for existing without access to shelter,” said Ed Johnson, the litigation director at the Oregon Law Center, who helps represent the plaintiffs challenging the ordinances.

California Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, filed a legal brief criticizing the 9th Circuit’s decision for undermining lawmakers’ ability to forge solutions to homelessness, “leaving only the most rudimentary and fragmented options for effecting change during a growing national crisis.”

The Supreme Court’s decision to hear the case came a day after the 9th Circuit rejected an appeal by San Francisco to lift judicial restrictions on that city’s ability to clear homeless encampments.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York; Editing by Will Dunham)