Apr 22, 2024 - Politics

Supreme Court tackles whether cities can ban outdoor sleeping

Homeless encampment near San Diego City Hall

A homeless encampment in front of San Diego City Hall. Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday on whether it's constitutional for cities to ban homeless residents from sleeping outside when shelter space isn't available.

Why it matters: District Attorney Summer Stephan argued in a brief that the lower court's opinion creates "uncertainty about the validity" of the unsafe-camping ordinance San Diego adopted last year.

  • San Diego's law prohibits camping near schools, shelters, transit stations and in parks at all times — and anywhere else in the city when shelter is available.

The big picture: California leaders, like those in other states hit by the homelessness crisis, are monitoring the high court's decision, which could reshape how cities can respond to the problem.

  • Newsom, in a brief from his office to the court, said "homeless people should not be criminalized for sleeping outside when they have nowhere else to go."
  • Yes, but: He argued that cities should be able to set specific time-and-place limitations, so it's possible to clear encampments.

Zoom in: Despite the caveats in San Diego's policy, Stephan argued the entire ordinance was threatened because it prohibits stoves in all public encampments.

  • Her office interpreted that as a violation of the lower court's ruling, because stoves used for warmth or cooking would qualify as "human activity that cannot be avoided."

The intrigue: San Diego was mentioned in the hearing, but not for its homeless policy.

  • Justice Samuel Alito asked Deputy Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler whether San Diego could restrict outdoor sleeping by a homeless person who relocated from Fargo, North Dakota, because sleeping outside here would be more comfortable.
  • Kneedler said it wouldn't matter other legal protections guaranteeing people the right to travel, and not due to the specific constitutional question presented by the case.

What's next: The Supreme Court's ruling is expected in June.


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