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

The ruling comes amid a nationwide surge in homelessness as high rents put pressure on low-income households and pandemic-era protections expire.

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 — namely the nation’s shortage of affordable and attainable housing — while making it more difficult for people experiencing homelessness to get a fresh start and access necessary services.

“Homelessness is the result of a nationwide affordable housing crisis so that’s what we need to solve,” Eric Samuels, president and CEO of Texas Homeless Network, said.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg condemned Friday’s ruling, which he said “paves the way to criminalize homelessness.”

“Our unhoused neighbors need permanent supportive housing, access to health care, and to be treated with basic dignity,” Nirenberg wrote on the social media site X. “We cannot arrest our way out of homelessness.”

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.

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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.

Some major Texas cities have made significant headway in recent years in reducing the number of people sleeping in encampments or other outdoor places where people aren’t meant to live. Officials in Houston, nationally lauded for the city’s approach to addressing homelessness, and Dallas have focused their efforts on rapidly finding new housing for people in those circumstances and connecting them with support services.

That approach has worked, officials in those cities said, with double-digit reductions in street homelessness since 2020. Friday’s ruling won’t help reduce homelessness or address its underlying causes, they said.

“Everyone has a right to access public spaces,” said Kelly Young, CEO of the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County. “The problem arises when people must reside in a public space because they have literally no other option. The answer is clear: everyone needs a place to live. Today’s ruling won’t get us there; what we need is adequate funding for permanent housing.”

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.

Original article

Photo: A homeless encampment in the USA. Source: Reuters.

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