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Supreme Court says cities can punish people for sleeping outside

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

In a major ruling on homelessness, the Supreme Court today said cities can punish people for sleeping outside. The 6-3 decision broke down along ideological lines, and it could have sweeping consequences for the quarter of a million people who live on U.S. streets and parks or in their cars. NPR's Jennifer Ludden is here to explain it. Hey, Jennifer.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Hi, Scott.

DETROW: Let's start with the decision itself. What was the majority's rationale here?

LUDDEN: OK. Well, first, they said basically it is not cruel and unusual to fine or jail unhoused people for sleeping outside, even if they have nowhere else to go. Now, for rationale, writing for the majority, Justice Gorsuch said homelessness is complex. It's caused by lots of things. And federal judges do not have special power to tell cities how to handle it. This overturns lower court rulings in the 9th Circuit. That's nine Western states, including California, And that is where the bulk of the country's homeless population lives. Now, there was a passionate dissent, which Justice Sotomayor read from the bench. She said this decision ignores the plight of really vulnerable people who have no choice but to sleep outside.

DETROW: You've been covering this. You've reported dozens of officials across the West - and this is Democrats and Republicans - had urged the court to take up this case. How are they reacting?

LUDDEN: I spoke with one of them. Summer Stephan is the district attorney in San Diego. She thinks it's going to be especially helpful with homeless people who suffer from drug addiction. Overdose deaths in San Diego have spiked. She says this is because people often refuse shelter even when it is available. And with these new enforcement powers, Stephan thinks when police are sent out, people will have more incentive to take up their offers.

SUMMER STEPHAN: To accept shelter, to accept treatment, to accept going into a detox because they now would have the legal ability to act, which is to have them be removed from that area.

LUDDEN: Stephan calls arrest a last resort, and she says she does not think this ruling will necessarily lead to more unhoused people in jail.

DETROW: What about advocates for the homeless? What are they saying?

LUDDEN: They are worried that cities will more aggressively sweep people out of downtowns, you know, out of public view. Sara Rankin at Seattle University School of Law says using law enforcement is expensive for cities, and it's traumatizing for unhoused people.

SARA RANKIN: It forces them away from the outreach help that they might need. People lose possessions like medication and identification, other documents that they need in order to have any hope of emerging from homelessness.

LUDDEN: She makes another interesting point. Rankin and other legal analysts say this ruling is not going to end lawsuits over homelessness policies. So the Supreme Court said fines and arrest are not cruel and unusual, but Rankin says there are other ways advocates can challenge crackdowns, you know, based maybe on discrimination or disability or privacy rights.

DETROW: So you said that this decision changes the law right now in nine Western states. What about the rest of the country?

LUDDEN: We have seen a lot of places outside the Ninth Circuit pass homeless camping bans. That includes a handful of states, recently in Florida. And one is slated to take effect July 1 in Kentucky. Now, so far, there has not been strict enforcement of all these laws. But it is possible that this ruling could change that. Also, by the way, former President Trump has weighed in on this issue. He has said if he's reelected, he'll work with states to ban urban camping wherever possible.

DETROW: NPR's Jennifer Ludden. Thank you.

LUDDEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.