🖤 Donations of all sizes power our public service journalism Give Now

SCOTUS weighs policy on policing homeless people amid a national housing shortage

Amy Scott and Sarah Leeson Apr 22, 2024
Heard on:
HTML EMBED:
COPY
Communities are grappling with how to address record-high homelessness across the country. John Moore/Getty Images

SCOTUS weighs policy on policing homeless people amid a national housing shortage

Amy Scott and Sarah Leeson Apr 22, 2024
Heard on:
Communities are grappling with how to address record-high homelessness across the country. John Moore/Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
COPY

Amid a national housing shortage, it shouldn’t be a surprise that homelessness is up. Last year, the number of unsheltered people in the United States was up 12%, representing more than 650,000 people, the highest number since the federal government tracking started in 2007.

And communities are struggling to figure out how to respond to the situation, not only when it comes to housing, but also when it comes to policing, as demonstrated in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. The court heard oral arguments Monday on whether efforts to enforce a public camping ban in Grants Pass, Oregon, violated the Eighth Amendment’s protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

Abbie VanSickle, the Supreme Court correspondent for The New York Times, joined “Marketplace” host Amy Scott to talk about this case and what’s at stake. An edited transcript of their conversation follows.

Amy Scott: So you listened to oral arguments in court this morning. What was that like after having actually reported in this community, Grants Pass?

Abbie VanSickle: I thought it was just a fascinating argument, especially after having gone to Grants Pass and spent time, you know, in the encampments and speaking with local officials about this case. And, you know, the justices were wrestling with a lot of the same issues that local officials and unhoused people and Grants Pass think about, which I thought was pretty fascinating.

Scott: Yeah, so talk about this community and what you saw when you reported there, because I think sometimes this argument gets a little academic, right?

VanSickle: Yeah, so Grants Pass is a town of about 40,000 people. It’s in the foothills of Southern Oregon, and it’s a former timber hub. And the town has been sort of struggling with what to do as residents began to complain that there were more and more people who were homeless and in the downtown area, and also camping and sleeping in some of the city’s parks. And so local officials stepped up enforcement of a series of local ordinances that basically make it so people cannot sleep with bedding in any public space in the town. And a group of homeless people filed a lawsuit challenging that, saying that the city was violating their Eighth Amendment rights, that it was unconstitutional, cruel and unusual punishment.

Scott: Now, what did you hear in the courtroom to give you any indication of how the justices might lean?

VanSickle: Yeah, so I would say that the liberal group of justices had a pretty impassioned back and forth with the lawyer for the city of Grants Pass about, you know, the implications of making it so people could not sleep. They argued this is an essential human function; people must sleep. And so if you cannot sleep outside anywhere, and you don’t have a place to go, you don’t have a shelter bed or a house, what are you supposed to do? And, you know, many of the conservative justices seem to be wrestling with sort of the practicalities of enforcement: How does a city decide whether there are enough shelter beds or not on a particular night? How do police actually sort of make these individual determinations? So those are kind of the major threads that I heard in the argument today.

Scott: Of course, the ruling will have implications for so many communities that are grappling with this issue. Can you talk about how what you saw in Grants Pass reflects the housing situation throughout many parts of the country, especially in the West?

VanSickle: Of course. I think this is one of the most important things to understand about the case is that this is not just a case about, you know, a small town in Oregon. This is a case that has drawn the attention of cities, you know, especially on the West Coast and in the Western states, but throughout the country, about how cities can deal with, and sort of what the boundaries are for, regulating homelessness at a time when homelessness has increased. And when the case was coming before the court, we’ve seen friend of the court briefs by leaders across the political spectrum who are asking the court for clarity on, you know, “What can cities and states do? What can they not do?” And, you know, “How are they supposed to wrestle with this question?”

Scott: Yeah, I mean, there are obviously no easy answers, but advocates for the unhoused say that the cure to homelessness is housing. Are you hearing that in the arguments? That communities really need to provide housing for these folks if they’re going to clear them out of these encampments?

VanSickle: You know, that was not a big part of the oral argument today. It was definitely something that came out in some of the briefs to the court about affordable housing. And it is certainly something that came up in interviews at Grants Pass, where they have seen increasing rents, increasing housing costs, and, you know, very limited options for people on low or no income. So it’s certainly looming in the background of the case, but it wasn’t at the heart of the legal argument today.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.