Democrats in multiple western states are making strange bedfellows with Republicans in a push to get the conservative-majority Supreme Court to settle the legal dispute over whether homeless people should be allowed to camp on public property without penalty.
We've all seen Governor Gavin Newsom — who's never been the most progressive or tolerant on the topic of homelessness — and San Francisco Mayor London Breed come out shouting in recent months about decisions by liberal judges on the federal bench regarding homeless encampments. Having felt the political winds shift in the direction of more outrage and frustration when it comes to tents on streets, even liberal Democrats now find themselves on the side of Donald Trump and every other politician who decries the squalor on city sidewalks.
The New York Times today notes the "rare alliance" being forged between conservatives and liberals on this issue, as San Francisco joins some 50 governments and organizations this month seeking the Supreme Court's intervention on homeless tent-clearing.
"Homeless encampments grew dramatically in some West Coast cities during the pandemic, which the public initially seemed to tolerate as another consequence of life being upended," the Times writes. "As much of society has returned to normal, however, patience has worn thin and voters regularly have named homelessness as one of their top concerns."
Local and state governments are filing briefs with the Supreme Court in the hope that it will take up a case involving the small town of Grants Pass, Oregon, where homeless individuals and advocates sued the town over civil penalties it imposed for public camping. The penalties, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has decided, are not constitutional, grouping them with the criminal penalties that were ruled unconstitutional in a 2018 case out of Boise, Idaho, which has set a new precedent on the issue.
In the Boise case, a federal court ruled and the Ninth Circuit affirmed, homeless people can not be penalized for setting up camp if the municipality does not have adequate alternative shelter to offer them — essentially saying that people can not be punished for being unhoused.
Newsom has said that he initially supported the Boise decision but now, "It’s just gone too far," and he wants the conservative-leaning Supreme Court to settle the issue.
The Times quotes Timothy Sandefur, vice president for legal affairs at the conservative think tank The Goldwater Institute saying of Democrats like Newsom, "The more the merrier. When somebody comes to see the light, you don’t berate them for spending all this time in the darkness — you praise them for seeing the truth."
The Ninth Circuit ruled somewhat narrowly in the Oregon case, saying that in banning civil penalties for encampments it was not ruling on whether a city can enforce local laws with regard to public safety and the blocking of streets, sidewalks, or rights of way.
And, now, San Francisco is dealing with an injunction from a federal judge that ostensibly bans encampment-clearing — though the Ninth Circuit issued guidance this month that suggests encampments can be cleared if individuals are not "involuntarily" homeless. Mayor Breed and City Attorney David Chiu have interpreted this to mean that if an offer of shelter is made and refused, that counts as voluntary homelessness and anything goes.
The Ninth Circuit has yet to rule on the merits of the lower court's injunction, and the lower court has yet to rule on the original lawsuit, filed last September against San Francisco by the Coalition on Homelessness, the ACLU, and several homeless individuals.
Meanwhile, per the Times, the Supreme Court is expected to decide whether to take up the Grants Pass case by January.
Photo: Levi Meir Clancy