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How can cities reduce homelessness? The Supreme Court must clear the way

Although the Supreme Court appeared divided along ideological lines, the Oregon case has rallied bipartisan support for enforcing homelessness policies.


Until you’ve witnessed a sprawling homeless encampment, it’s hard to imagine what all the fuss is about.

Why don’t we let people camp where they want? Why are other people frustrated and afraid because of makeshift encampments?

Over the past decade, I have witnessed how liberal cities, whose leaders thought they were friendly, have allowed so-called public camping to take over once beautiful downtowns and parks.

As an Oregon resident, I often visit my home state. I love it. The state’s natural beauty is hard to beat.

That’s why it’s devastating to see the rise of homelessness and how encampments have affected neighborhoods, parks and downtowns in cities like Portland and Salem.

These are not neat campsites. They are often littered with large piles of rubbish, posing both a health and fire hazard. No effort seems to have been made to keep the areas clean, and there is a complete disregard for other people who might want to use these public areas.

Substance use is also widespread among this population, and Oregon’s recent failed experiment with decriminalizing hard drugs has not helped.

The camps — and city officials’ unwillingness to do anything about them — are driving businesses and residents from the cities they once loved.

That’s why I was pleased that a case from Grants Pass, Oregon, made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard arguments Monday. Depending on how the court rules, cities could regain control over how they address this destructive phenomenon.

A widespread problem on the liberal West Coast

More than 256,000 people in the United States are homeless and unsheltered, living on the streets, in parks, or in vehicles parked on city streets.

About half of them live in California, so it’s not just an Oregon problem. Cities along the West Coast, including Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, have among the highest homelessness rates.

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But the cold and snowy northeastern state of Vermont, home to socialist Senator Bernie Sanders, has the second-highest rate of homelessness in the country. Sunny and warm Florida, on the other hand, has a homeless rate that is more than two-thirds lower than that of California, Oregon and Vermont.

That’s no coincidence. The cities and states with large homeless populations are governed by liberals who have allowed the situation to get so bad.

Grants Pass, a relatively small town of 40,000, had tried to get its own homelessness problem under control, including a crackdown on public camping. But Grants Pass, like other towns, continued to run into roadblocks in the courts that prevented local laws from being enforced.

Lower courts, including the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals, found it cruel and unusual under the Eighth Amendment to fine or imprison someone for sleeping on public property when adequate shelter was not available. However, that is difficult to define.

Some homeless people refuse to live in shelters and prefer to stay outside.

The liberals on the court seemed to side with the advocates of the unhoused. Justice Elena Kagan said, “Sleep is a biological necessity. It’s a bit like breathing. … But presumably you wouldn’t think it’s okay to criminalize breathing in public.”

Kagan clearly does not understand the reality of homeless encampments. It’s not just sleeping; in many cases people live there 24/7. That’s a big difference in terms of safety and sanitation in public places.

Although the court appeared divided along ideological lines, the case has rallied bipartisan support for enforcing homelessness policies. Interestingly, California Governor Gavin Newsom wrote an amicus brief in support of Grants Pass, saying his state’s hands are tied by the common sense policy. Twenty conservative-led states, including Idaho and Montana, also signed a memorandum, and many others also showed their support.

Newsom’s letter states: “As states, cities and counties work on a long-term approach to help combat these crises, they need the flexibility to also address immediate threats to health and safety in public places – both for individuals living in unsafe encampments living as well as for other members of the public who are affected by it.”

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The Supreme Court’s conservative majority appears to be siding with Grants Pass

What else can cities like Grants Pass do to keep these spaces safe for everyone?

The oral arguments show that the court’s conservative majority is empathetic to Grants Pass. They tried to distinguish between a person’s status (not punishable) and his behavior (which is possible). Justice Neil Gorsuch raised the example of whether urinating or defecating in public when public restrooms are not available can be protected by the Eighth Amendment.

That is something no city should allow.

All these questions point to how difficult it is for communities to manage homelessness. Yet they are in the best position to do that – and not the judges who are not so close to the situation.

“There was no enthusiasm to merge judges as ‘inspectors’ of the municipal homeless policy“, Ilya Shapiro, director of constitutional studies and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, said of

In other words, Grants Pass could again address the problem as it sees fit.

We allow states and cities to enact laws that govern all kinds of human behavior to keep our society functioning well for everyone.

Tackling homelessness should be no different.

Ingrid Jacques is a columnist at USA TODAY. Contact her at [email protected] or at X, formerly Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques.