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Some cities facing homelessness crisis applaud Supreme Court decision, while others push back

SEATTLE — A U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing cities to enforce bans on outdoor sleeping in public spaces will allow San Francisco to clear homeless encampments that have plagued the city, the mayor said Friday as she applauded the ruling.

The case is the most significant issue to come before the Supreme Court in decades and comes as cities across the country have grappled with the politically complicated issue of how to deal with growing numbers of people without permanent homes and public frustration over related health and safety concerns.

“We will continue to provide services, but we can no longer allow people to do whatever they want on the streets of San Francisco, especially when we have a place for them to go,” said Mayor London N. Breed of San Francisco, a Democrat, after the ruling 6-3.

Breed said she will discuss the ruling with the city attorney’s office before any new policies are implemented. The city will also provide training for those clearing the camps.

But the ruling was not universally welcomed, and some cities, such as Seattle, said their approach to encampments would not change. A spokesman for the mayor’s office in Portland, Oregon, said it was prevented by state law from making major changes based on the court decision.

Cody Bowman, a spokesman for Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, a Democrat who saw his two terms in office fail over dissatisfaction with the city’s homeless crisis, said they hoped the decision would prompt the state Legislature to address the issue and “see this opportunity to think about the resources cities really need to manage public campsites, provide adequate shelter, and keep our streets safe and clean.”

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Boise, the Idaho Democrat, also said the city will not change its approach to those sleeping in public spaces, including case management and supportive housing.

“In Boise, we take care of people. Criminalizing homelessness has never solved the problems that come with homelessness, and it never will,” said Mayor Lauren McLean. “We need to address the root causes with proven strategies, like permanent supportive housing, that allow our residents to stay housed and thrive in their communities.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is set to sign a state budget in the coming days that includes another $250 million in grants for local governments to clear homeless camps, said the ruling gives state and local officials “the final authority” to enforce policies that clear unwanted encampments.

“This decision removes the legal ambiguities that have tied the hands of local officials for years and limited their ability to take common-sense measures to protect the safety and well-being of our communities,” Newsom said in a statement after the ruling, which came in Los Angeles the same day. released an annual count of the homeless population.

Sara Rankin, a law professor at Seattle University who directs the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project, said the decision will likely result in something of a free pass for cities that ban people from sleeping on the streets. But she said state constitutional provisions and other federal constitutional provisions could then be invoked.

“I think some cities are going to misinterpret this as a green light for open season on homelessness,” she said. “But if they do, they do so at their own peril, because I think lawyers will go after them based on other theories that are still available to them, which remain untouched by today’s decision.”

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The case came from the rural town of Grants Pass, Oregon, which appealed a ruling striking down local ordinances that fined people $295 for sleeping outdoors after tents began crowding public parks. The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over the nine Western states, has ruled since 2018 that such bans violate the Eighth Amendment in areas where there are not enough shelter beds.

Jesse Rabinowitz, communications and campaigns director at the National Homelessness Law Center, said he worries the decision will allow cities to focus even more on arresting people sleeping outside, rather than focusing on proven solutions.

“There are encampments in California and DC and New York, not because there aren’t laws to punish people, but because there isn’t enough housing to meet everyone’s needs,” he said. “And this case will make it harder to focus on the real solutions.”



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