Supreme Court will hear case on unsheltered homeless

unsheltered homeless people camping in Oakland Ca
Homeless camp at San Pablo and WEST Grand Avenue in Oakland, California, on December 16, 2018 (JA-IMAGES)

40% of homeless population are unsheltered

40% of homeless are black

30% of homeless are chronically homeless

60% of homeless are male

26% of homeless are seriously mentally ill

The Supreme Court will consider whether local laws prohibiting homeless people from sleeping on public property is cruel and unusual punishment barred by the Constitution.

The Oregon city of Grants Pass asked the high court to review a lower court’s decision to block it from enforcing its public camping ordinance, writing that the decision “cemented a conflict” with California courts that have upheld similar ordinances.

The city cited a slew of potential consequences for allowing the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision to stand, including crime, fires, environmental harm, “the reemergence of medieval diseases,” drug overdoses and deaths.

“The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals’ decisions are legally wrong and have tied the hands of local governments as they work to address the urgent homelessness crisis,” Theane Evangelis, a lawyer for Grants Pass, said in a statement.

“The tragedy is that these decisions are actually harming the very people they purport to protect,” she continued. “We look forward to presenting our arguments to the Supreme Court this spring.”

Grant Pass’s request for the Supreme Court to take up the case was backed by officials in San Francisco and Phoenix, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and 20 Republican state attorneys general.

The Eighth Amendment is at the heart of the case. It prevents “cruel and unusual punishments” from being imposed, in addition to excessive fines or bail.

“For years, political leaders have chosen to tolerate encampments as an alternative to meaningfully addressing the western region’s severe housing shortage,” attorneys representing the city’s unsheltered homeless population wrote to the justices, urging them to let stand the lower court’s ruling favoring them.

“As the homelessness crisis has escalated, these amici have faced intense public backlash for their failed policies, and it is easier to blame the courts than to take responsibility for finding a solution,” they added.

The Supreme Court previously declined to consider a similar appeal of the lower court’s 2019 ruling, which found that sleeping outdoors on public property—when there is no option to sleep indoors—can’t be criminalized “on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.”

The Supreme Court’s announcement came one day after the 9th Circuit upheld a lower decision prohibiting San Francisco from removing homeless people from the streets without first offering them shelter.

The court’s brief, unsigned order—as is typical—likely places it in the final set of cases to be argued this term. Such a timeline would result in a decision by the end of June.

Highest homeless rates on record

There was an alarming increase in the number of unsheltered homeless people in the U.S. in 2023.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development statistics, over 653,100 individuals were homeless in January 2023.

This is a significant jump of 70,650 people over the previous year—a startling 12 percent increase—and the largest number since data collection started in 2007.

Despite accounting for only 13 percent of the total U.S. population, African Americans comprised 40 percent of individuals experiencing homelessness.

The report also shed light on a significant surge in homelessness within the Hispanic community, with a striking 28 percent increase—equivalent to 39,106 more people—between 2022 and 2023. Additionally, the number of families with children facing homelessness spiked by 16 percent, reversing a declining trend observed since 2012.

Among the 653,100 homeless individuals tallied in January, six out of 10 found shelter in temporary accommodations, while four out of 10 resorted to inhabiting locations unfit for human dwelling, as per the report’s findings.

The report delineated those states grappling with the highest homeless populations. California topped the list with 181,399 homeless individuals, trailed by New York (103,200), Florida (30,756), Washington state (28,036), Texas (27,377), and Oregon (20,142).

Experts attribute the exacerbation of the homelessness crisis in the U.S. to several factors, including poverty, mental health challenges, addiction issues, an acute shortage of housing options and more.

Source: Supreme Court: Ella Lee And Zach Schonfeld, The Hill;Rates of homelessness, International News; statistics sources in order of appearance—National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2023 report;