Supreme Court Allows Cities to Ban Public Sleeping and Camping, Overturning Lower Court Rulings

Jimmy Williams

In a significant decision on homelessness, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Friday that cities can ban people from sleeping and camping in public places. The justices, in a 6-3 decision along ideological lines, overturned lower court rulings that found it cruel and unusual under the Eighth Amendment to punish people for sleeping outside if they had no other place to go.

Justice Gorsuch, writing for the majority, stated, “Homelessness is complex. Its causes are many.” He emphasized that federal judges lack the “special competence” to dictate how cities should address this issue. “The Constitution’s Eighth Amendment serves many important functions, but it does not authorize federal judges to wrest those rights and responsibilities from the American people and in their place dictate this Nation’s homelessness policy,” he wrote.

In a dissent, Justice Sotomayor argued that the decision prioritizes the needs of cities over the most vulnerable. She noted that sleep is a biological necessity and the ruling forces homeless individuals into “an impossible choice — either stay awake or be arrested.”

The ruling favors the small Oregon city of Grants Pass, which brought the case, and numerous Western localities seeking more enforcement powers amid record high rates of homelessness. These cities argued that lower court rulings had hindered their efforts to keep public spaces safe and open for everyone.

However, advocates for the homeless believe the decision will not solve the bigger problem and could worsen conditions for the quarter of a million people living on the streets, in parks, and in their cars. Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, questioned, “Where do people experiencing homelessness go if every community decides to punish them for their homelessness?”

Today’s ruling directly affects the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes California and eight other Western states with a significant portion of the nation’s homeless population. It will also influence whether similar policies are permissible elsewhere and impact homelessness policies nationwide.

Grants Pass and other cities argued that previous rulings fueled the spread of homeless encampments, jeopardizing public health and safety. While those decisions allowed cities to restrict when and where people could sleep and even shut down encampments, they required cities to provide adequate shelter first—a challenging requirement for many areas with insufficient shelter beds. Cities also expressed frustration that many homeless individuals refuse shelter due to restrictions such as bans on pets or prohibitions on drugs and alcohol.

Critics said the lower court rulings were ambiguous and unworkable, leading to numerous lawsuits over enforcement details. They argued that local officials are better equipped to balance the competing interests involved in addressing homelessness.

Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison, representing several cities, emphasized the need for respecting public spaces while caring for homeless individuals. “We are trying to show there’s respect for the public areas that we all need to have,” she told NPR earlier this year.

Attorneys for homeless individuals in Grants Pass contended that the city’s regulations were so broad that they effectively criminalized homelessness. The city banned the use of stoves, sleeping bags, pillows, and other bedding in public spaces, yet had no public shelter apart from a Christian mission with various restrictions, including mandatory religious services.

Ed Johnson of the Oregon Law Center, representing the plaintiffs, argued that punishing people for circumstances beyond their control is unjust. He also noted that fines and criminal records further hinder individuals’ chances of obtaining housing.

Advocates like Johnson believe that today’s decision doesn’t address the root cause of rising homelessness: a severe housing shortage and unaffordable rents. They argue that the only real solution is to create significantly more affordable housing, a process that will take years.

About J. Williams

Check Also

Kevin Roberts

The 19th Explains: What You Need To Know About Project 2025

Amanda Becker, Orion Rummler, Darreonna Davis Originally published by The 19th Project 2025. You might …

Leave a Reply