The U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ban on homeless encampments. Here’s what it means for Texas.

By Joshua Fechter, The Texas Tribune

June 28, 2024

Bans on homeless encampments in Texas drew the effective backing of the U.S. Supreme Court in a sweeping ruling Friday that allows cities and states to fine people experiencing homelessness for sleeping in public places amid record-high homelessness levels.

Justices ruled that a small Oregon town could continue fining people for sleeping outside, ruling that doing so is a broadly constitutional method of responding to the nation’s homelessness crisis.

Camping bans adopted by state lawmakers and in major cities like Austin and Houston weren’t explicitly challenged in the case. But advocates for those experiencing homelessness saw Friday’s ruling as an endorsement of such bans from the nation’s highest court that could embolden state and local governments to embrace such policies without providing housing options for people experiencing homelessness.

Such bans, those advocates argue, do nothing to address the underlying causes of homelessness while making it more difficult for people experiencing homelessness to get a fresh start and access necessary services.

“It certainly is cruel to punish people for [not having] something that they should be provided by their communities,” said Matt Mollica, executive director of ECHO, the lead agency of Austin’s homeless system.

The Cicero Institute — an Austin-based think tank that has pushed states to enact bans on homeless encampments on public safety grounds — lauded Friday’s ruling.

“This historic ruling ensures that elected leaders have the ability to take action to improve community safety and protect property owners — action supported by a bipartisan majority of voters across the nation,” Stefani Buhajla, a spokesperson for the institute, said in a statement.

The case originated in Grants Pass, Oregon, where officials began issuing $295 fines against people for sleeping outside. An appeals court later overturned the law, ruling that fining people for sleeping outside if they had nowhere else to go violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The Supreme Court’s conservative majority disagreed. Writing for the majority, Justice Neil Gorsuch acknowledged that “homelessness is complex.” But the Eighth Amendment “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,” Gorsuch wrote.

The ruling comes amid a nationwide surge in homelessness as high rents put pressure on low-income households who no longer have protections created during the pandemic that helped keep them housed.

The number of Texans experiencing homelessness returned to pre-pandemic levels last year, growing by more than 12% in 2023. Some 27,377 Texans were homeless last year, according to federal estimates. Of those, about 11,700 people were living outside, in their cars or in other places not fit for human habitation.

After Austin relaxed restrictions on public encampments in 2019, voters in that city opted in 2021 to reinstate the ban at the ballot box amid a perceived rise in the number of homeless people on the streets. Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law a statewide camping ban that included penalties for cities that don’t enforce the ban.

Austin police have issued 915 citations since voters reinstated the city ban, which made lying down or camping on public property a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500.

Fining those who have nowhere else to go for sleeping outside places more barriers to escaping homelessness, Mollica said. Someone who can’t afford a place to live likely can’t afford to pay the fine. Often, those charged with misdemeanors don’t show up to court and, as a result, wind up with arrest warrants and criminal histories that make it difficult to land a job and a place to live.

Austin’s camping ban effectively forced people experiencing homelessness out of the city center where they could more easily access necessary services and into neighborhoods and parks, Mollica said.

“I can tell you one thing that hasn’t happened: it hasn’t helped to end homelessness at all,” Mollica said.

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