High court’s homeless ruling criticized by Mayor Bass

Wave Wire Services

LOS ANGELES — The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that cities can enforce bans on homeless people sleeping on sidewalks and other public outdoor spaces, a decision that will particularly resonate in cities such as Los Angeles, where homeless encampments remain a major issue.

The court’s 6-3 decision reversed a ruling by a San Francisco appeals court that found outdoor sleeping bans amount to cruel and unusual punishment when there is no available shelter space for the homeless. The ruling of the Supreme Court’s majority found the 8th Amendment does not apply to outdoor sleeping bans.

“Homelessness is complex,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the majority. “Its causes are many. So may be the public policy responses required to address it.

“A handful of federal judges cannot begin to ‘match’ the collective wisdom the American people possess in deciding ‘how best to handle” a pressing social question like homelessness.”

The high court’s other conservative justices voted with Gorsuch, while the three liberal justices dissented.

Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass said the Supreme Court’s decision was not surprising, but disappointing.

“This ruling must not be used as an excuse for cities across the country to attempt to arrest their way out of this problem or hide the homelessness crisis in neighboring cities or in jail,” Bass said. “Neither will work, neither will save lives and that route is more expensive for taxpayers than actually solving the problem.”

The decision came on the same day that the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority announced the total number of people experiencing homelessness in the Los Angeles region had dropped slightly in 2024, reversing a five-year upward trend — though the numbers remain significant.

Specifically, there were 75,312 unhoused people in Los Angeles County in 2024 compared to 75,518 in 2023, a dip of 0.27%; and there were 45,252 unhoused individuals in the city of L.A. in 2024 compared to 46,260 in 2023, a drop of 2.2%.

Those numbers were gathered during an annual point-in-time survey conducted by hundreds of volunteers all across the region Jan. 24-26.

Writing for the minority, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said, “Sleep is a biological necessity, not a crime. For some people, sleeping outside is their only option. For people with no access to shelter, that punishes them for being homeless. That is unconscionable and unconstitutional. Punishing people for their status is ‘cruel and unusual’ under the 8th Amendment.

“It is possible to acknowledge and balance the issues facing local governments, the humanity and dignity of homeless people, and our constitutional principles,” Sotomayor added. “Instead, the majority focuses almost exclusively on the needs of local governments and leaves the most vulnerable in our society with an impossible choice: Either stay awake or be arrested.”

The case originated in the rural Oregon town of Grants Pass, which appealed a ruling striking down local ordinances that fined people $295 for sleeping outside after tents began crowding public parks. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over nine western states, ruled in 2018 that such bans violate the 8th Amendment of those who are in areas where there are not enough shelter beds.

L.A. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger released a statement saying the court ruling “empowers local governments to make judicious decisions about when to apply enforcement.”

“To decrease the number of homeless individuals living on our streets, we need to use every tool available to compassionately extend housing hand in hand with supportive services,” she said. “We must also be balanced in our approach to enforcement so that communities can enjoy public spaces taken over by homeless encampments.

“I want to be clear,” she added. “The criminalization of people experiencing homelessness is wrong. But, having another tool to make measurable and effective change is critical. Our county and its cities must work collaboratively and in sync with one another so that we can successfully end homelessness. Homelessness is not a problem that can simply be shuffled around.”

County Supervisor Hilda L. Solis, meanwhile, called the ruling “unconscionable and inhumane,” adding that “people experiencing homelessness should not be punished, whether it’s a criminal violation or a civil citation, for simply trying to survive.”

“Make no mistake, anti-camping ordinances will be implemented unevenly across Los Angeles County by some jurisdictions that refuse to be a part of the solution in offering housing or wrap-around services,” Solis said. “Allowing jurisdictions to implement anti-camping ordinances will put a strain on those who want to do the right thing. 

“Furthermore, it will only enable jurisdictions to shirk their responsibility and push their unhoused residents across their borders into other cities or even unincorporated areas.

“Allowing unsheltered homelessness to be a crime, even when there is no shelter, would mean more people cycling in and out of our carceral systems, and would bring us no closer to solving our homelessness crisis.”

U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Los Angeles, also reacted to the ruling.

“The Supreme Court’s decision in Johnson v. Grants Pass, allowing local governments to criminalize sleeping in public spaces, highlights just how extreme the affordable housing and homelessness crisis has become in this country, and the need for urgent, yet humane solutions,” Waters said. “While I am sympathetic to the desperation some local leaders feel when it comes to this crisis, let me be very clear: ticketing and jail time — one of the most burdensome costs on taxpayers — will not end homelessness. 

“This decision must be a wakeup call to federal, state and local leaders, including business leaders, to do what’s right. We must work together to finally end the cruel cycles of poverty and homelessness. This means investing in the development of fair and affordable housing for the lowest income families, paired with supportive services, to help stabilize families and individuals. 

“This also means that state and local governments need to step up and remove barriers to building new housing and maintaining existing homes,” she added. 

 Gov. Gavin Newsom praised the decision, saying “Today’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court provides state and local officials the definitive authority to implement and enforce policies to clear unsafe encampments from our streets.

“This decision removes the legal ambiguities that have tied the hands of local officials for years and limited their ability to deliver on common-sense measures to protect the safety and well-being of our communities.”

Meanwhile, L.A. County Public Defender Ricardo D. García issued a statement calling the Supreme Court ruling “a shameful failure to address the underlying issues that led to this crisis.”

“It is fundamentally wrong to punish individuals for their lack of housing, which is often the result of systemic failures rather than personal choice,” Garcia said.

“Resources are better spent tackling these root causes rather than perpetuating a cycle of criminalization that only deepens the challenges faced by persons experiencing homelessness. The L.A. County Public Defender’s Office is dedicated to providing our unhoused neighbors with the necessary legal support, clearing their records and connecting them with the resources they need. We work tirelessly to ensure that those we serve have a real chance at a second life, free from the shadows of past convictions. 

“This effort is not just about legal advocacy; it’s about restoring dignity and hope, and empowering individuals with opportunities to integrate fully and equitably into society.”

Va Lecia Adams Kellum, CEO of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, said the high court’s ruling could lead to different L.A. County jurisdictions taking different approaches in terms of enforcement.

“In the wake of the Grants Pass decision, it will be up to every city in the county of Los Angeles and the Board of Supervisors to decide how they move forward,” Adams Kellum said in a statement.

“LAHSA will stay focused on ending unsheltered homelessness and speeding up how quickly people move into permanent housing. We do not agree with criminalizing homelessness. In fact, the results of this year’s Homeless Count strongly support our best practices approach that aligns all levels of government and our providers around saving lives by resolving encampments and bringing people indoors. We believe in housing and services, not arrests.”

National data show the homeless population in the U.S. grew 12% last year, its highest reported level. Rising rents and declining coronavirus pandemic relief assistance have made it more difficult for some to find adequate housing and shelter. About a third of the homeless population in the United States is in California.

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