With a 6-3 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the City of Grants Pass, Oregon on Friday, upholding local ordinances across the country — including San Antonio's — that criminalize sleeping in public and homeless encampments.

The lawsuit called into question whether fining and jailing people experiencing homelessness for camping overnight when there’s nowhere else to sleep constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment,” which is prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. Advocates for people experiencing homelessness argue that it criminalizes the basic human need, and therefore right, to sleep.

“The Constitution’s Eighth Amendment serves many important functions,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion, “but it 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.”

Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson dissented.

The majority decision “leaves the most vulnerable in our society with an impossible choice: Either stay awake or be arrested,” Sotomayor wrote for the minority opinion.

Many cities, including San Antonio, don't have the shelter capacity or required resources to house every single person experiencing homelessness.

“We are concerned and will closely monitor the impact of today's ruling on communities nationwide,” said Katie Wilson, executive director of Close to Home, which coordinates the local homeless response system. “Criminalizing people for their lack of safe shelter or housing will never be the answer to addressing homelessness. It is important that communities across the country, including ours, do not change course based on this ruling.

“Close to Home, and our Alliance [to House Everyone], will continue to focus on compassionate, sustainable solutions to address homelessness. We need to continue working on permanent housing options, preventing homelessness, and sustaining our homelessness response system.”

San Antonio's camping ban

Camping in public without a permit has been banned in San Antonio since 2005. People can be charged with a class C misdemeanor and fined up to $500 for violations.

In 2021, Texas enacted a statewide ban with the same punishment.

Generally, San Antonio's elected officials, law enforcement and nonprofit leaders understand that homelessness is not a problem that can be arrested away, but the city ramped up its encampment cleanup program earlier this year.

In a resident survey released earlier this month, San Antonians selected encampment cleanups and homeless services as one of the top priorities for the city's budget for the second year in a row.

Those cleanups, called “abatements” or “sweeps,” involve outreach workers offering people services and housing while letting them know a cleanup is coming. Often they are gone before the crews and police arrive.

Recent investments in permanent supportive housing and low-barrier shelters have added to the city’s inventory of options for people experiencing homelessness, but a point-in-time count conducted during one night January showed a 6.8% percent increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness in Bexar County compared to last year.

Of the more than 3,300 individuals, 888 people were unsheltered.

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. She was the ISF FORUM's...