Activists rally in SF as Supreme Court hears case on homeless ordinances

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Homeless advocates rallied Monday as the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments concerning homeless ordinances in the small Oregon city of Grants Pass, a case that could have a massive impact on how big cities handle homeless encampments. 

“This is about humanity, it’s about dignity,” said one speaker at the rally.

The case, Grants Pass, Oregon v. Johnson, was considered by the 9th Circuit in 2019. It created strict limits on how cities can handle the unhoused, and when they can dismantle homeless encampments. 

Cities have said the decision made it nearly impossible to prevent tent cities from taking over. 

But homeless advocates argue that it’s a first step toward real help for the unhoused. They have voiced concerns that the conservative-learning Supreme Court could either strike it down or modify it. 

“It could, potentially on what they decide, have some impact,” said the Homeless Coalition Director Jennifer Freidenbach. “Regardless of what they decide, though, we’re still gonna fight for homeless people’s rights.”

One of the biggest issues in the Bay Area is homelessness, and on Monday, the Supreme Court stepped into a case that could determine how local cities deal with that issue. NBC Bay Area’s Raj Mathai spoke to San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu for some insight.

San Francisco is among several large West Coast cities that have filed amicus briefs hoping that the court will strike down or modify the Grants Pass decision. 

“Our frustration has been the ‘one size fits all’ approach of Grants Pass should not apply in San Francisco,” said San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu. 

Chiu’s office filed the amicus brief for the city, arguing that it has invested much more in homeless services and shelters as compared to Grants Pass. Therefore, the brief argues, it should not be penalized for the smaller city’s limited options. 

During oral arguments Monday, Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked about a Grants Pass ordinance that restricted unhoused people from using blankets. 

“We think that it is harmful for people to be living in public spaces, on streets and in parks, whatever bedding materials,” said a lawyer representing Grants Pass. “When humans are living in those conditions, we think that's not compassionate.” 

“Oh, it’s not,” Sotomayor said. “But neither is providing them with nothing to alleviate that situation.”

Right now, San Francisco cannot fully enforce ordinances related to sleeping or lying in city streets. That’s because of an injunction filed by the San Francisco Homeless Coalition, which is based in part on the previous Grants Pass decision. 

But the city is allowed to clear streets to be cleaned, or clear encampments if people are offered housing and they then turn down that offer. 

The Supreme Court is expected to hand down a decision later this summer. The judge overseeing the injunction against San Francisco has also paused any further action until that decision is made. 

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