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Will Supreme Court Help Americans Take Back Our Cities?

January 19, 2024

The U.S. Supreme Court last week took a major step toward righting the ship on the nationwide homelessness crisis that’s devastating our cities.

The high court announced it will review a federal appeals court ruling that many city officials have exploited as an excuse for inaction on the homelessness epidemic now crippling American cities. That Ninth Circuit decision (Grants Pass v. Johnson) and another that came before (Martin v. Boise) forbid cities from arresting people who are “involuntarily” living on streets, public parks, or other public spaces—and define “involuntary” so broadly that any time there aren’t enough beds available in city-run homeless shelters, a person sleeping on a sidewalk is deemed to be doing so “involuntarily.” But that’s wrong because a person isn’t “involuntarily” sleeping on the streets just because the government hasn’t given him a bed.

“That ruling has tied the hands of city officials who are trying to deal with the homelessness problem,” Goldwater Institute Vice President for Legal Affairs Timothy Sandefur said in a nationally televised interview on the NewsNationprogram Morning in America. “Or it’s given an excuse to city officials to just throw up their hands and refuse to deal with the problem at all.”

Nowhere was the impact of the Ninth Circuit’s ruling more starkly felt than in downtown Phoenix’s “Zone.” Once a bustling part of the city, the area deteriorated into a sprawling open-air shelter, housing over 1,000 people—“the epicenter,” as Sandefur put it; “the worst situation that resulted from these Ninth Circuit rulings.” The city explicitly blamed the Martin ruling for its refusal to enforce the law in The Zone, allowing the encampment to spiral into a state of lawlessness, where violent crime, public drug use, and vandalism ran rampant—and even transporting homeless people to the area from other neighborhoods. The resulting chaos not only posed a risk to the homeless themselves, but also dealt a heavy blow to law-abiding property and business owners in the area who saw their livelihoods destroyed through no fault of their own.

“The Ninth Circuit’s decision is based on the demeaning notion that people who choose to live in public parks and on sidewalks ‘can’t help it’ — a nonsense idea that hurts both the homeless and the hardworking taxpayers who must suffer” as a result, Sandefur told National Review.

In fact, the Goldwater Institute’s investigative reports and legal advocacy helped property owners secure an important legal a victory when a judge ruled late last year that Phoenix leaders must clean up The Zone, paving the way for a cleaner, safer community.

But the battle is far from over—as the Ninth Circuit rulings are still wreaking havoc in other major Western cities. That’s why Goldwater recently filed a brief urging the Supreme Court to reconsider and ultimately strike down the Martin and Grants Pass decisions, giving autonomy back to local governments to manage their unique situations. As Sandefur told NewsNation, “the problems of homelessness and vagrancy have always been local matters that are best addressed by people in those communities.” A decision to overturn Martin and Grants Pass would allow (and in many cases force) cities to manage homelessness more effectively, balancing compassion with their duty to protect all citizens’ rights by maintaining public order and safety.

“Those cases represent this notion that people can’t make decisions in their lives, that they are helpless, and that unless government gives them things that we can’t expect anything from them,” Sandefur explained. But Goldwater is fighting to ensure that every community is a place of safety, dignity, and opportunity for all.

Cameron Teel is a Ronald Reagan Fellow at the Goldwater Institute.



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