In major homelessness case, US Supreme Court upholds ban on sleeping outside (2024)

Victoria Eavis

The U.S. Supreme Court ruledFriday that municipalities can enforce bans on sleeping outside, a decision that is likely to reverberate throughout Montana.

The case originated out of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Montana. The 9th Circuit originallyheld that it is unconstitutional to penalize people with civil citations for sleeping outside when there are an inadequate number of shelter beds available in the area.

Ryan Sudbury, Missoula city attorney, called the ruling "a pretty unfettered win for the authority."

Just up North, Kalispell City Attorney Johnna Preble struck a different tone: "This is a great decision for local control," she said.

The 6-3 ruling was along ideological lines, and the majority found that it is not a violation of the U.S. Constitution's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment to disallow people from sleeping outside even when there are no shelter beds available.

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"The Constitution’s Eighth Amendment serves many important functions, 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,"Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the majority.

Leading up to oral arguments earlier this year, the National Homelessness Law Center called it the "most significant case about homelessness in 40+ years."

"What the Supreme Court has held is that the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution that prohibits cruel and unusual punishment can't be the basis for the Supreme Court getting involved in this dispute," said Amy Hall, an attorney who specializes in Montana housing law. "[The court] doesn't want to take away from the American people's right to how to best deal with houselessness."

The case, which came from Grants Pass, Oregon, was an expansion on an earlier ruling also from the 9th Circuit: Martin v. Boise, which ruled that hitting people with criminal penalties for sleeping outside when there was not alternative shelter space available was unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment's clause on cruel and unusual punishment. Key to this ruling is that the court also found that the plaintiffs were involuntarily homeless, meaning they had no choice but to be on the street.

Montana cities watch U.S. Supreme Court case on homeless encampments

"Sleep is a biological necessity, not a crime. For some people, sleeping outside is their only option," Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the dissent. "To address these challenges and provide for public health and safety, local governments need wide latitude, including to regulate when, where, and how homeless people sleep in public. The decision below did, in fact, leave cities free to punish..." Sotomayor continued.

Earlier this year, Alex Rate, interim deputy director of ACLU Montana, worried that if the court ruled in this direction, it could "embolden communities like Boise to pass inhumane ordinances that criminalize being unhoused."

Martin and Grants Pass are brought up frequently in Montana, especially as an increasing number of cities grapple with ballooning homeless populations. Multiple cities and towns in the state currently have ordinances related to homelessness or "urban camping."

On June 25 the Missoula City Councilmet until 3:30 a.m.debating, and ultimately passing, urban camping restrictions.

Montana ranks near worst in multiple nationwide homelessness categories

Previously, a municipal law in Missoula that had been on the books for decades banned urban camping citywide, but officials werenot enforcing the lawsince the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that people sleeping outside and in tents can't be punished if there are not enough shelter beds available.

"We're... striking the balance between protecting the rights of the unhoused and also protecting the safety of the citizens to access public places," Sudbury said.

In theory, that law could go back into effect given the Supreme Court's ruling, but the city council would have to vote on the matter first, Sudbury explained.

The city of Bozeman started removing homeless people from parks and recreation areas once the Warming Center expanded its capacity. With a year-round shelter in town, the city was given authority to force homeless people out of these spaces under the Martin ruling.

“As long as there’s a shelter space, we can remove them from the park,” Bozeman Police Capt. Joseph Swanson told the Montana Free Press in 2022.

In major homelessness case, US Supreme Court upholds ban on sleeping outside (1)

In response to Friday's ruling, the city of Bozeman announced it would convene a work session in early August to discuss a recent urban camping ordinance passed in the city.

“We look forward to discussing Ordinance 2147 with the Commission on August 6 and how the Supreme Court’s decision factors into how we move forward,” Chief Civil Attorney Anna Saverud said in a press release Friday.

Down the interstate in Manhattan, the city passed a similar but stricter ordinance to Bozeman's that prohibits camping on a public road for more than three days. That ordinance cited both the Grants Pass and Martin cases.

In early 2023 the city of Kalispell— the town where ahomeless man was beaten to deathlast year — passed three ordinancesin responsetothe ongoing encampment of homeless people in downtown Kalispell. Theordinancesregulate people's occupancy in a covered structure, regulate personal items in public places and outlaw personal structures in parks.Those ordinances were put into place with Grants Pass explicitly in mind, Kalispell City Attorney Johnna Preble previously explained to Lee Newspapers.

This ruling comes during a time when Montana has one of the fastest growing populations of homeless people in the country.

Between 2007 — when the nationwide annual tracking began — and 2023, the number of people experiencing homelessness increased in 25 states, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development's 2023 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report.

Montana had the second-largest percentage increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness at 89% and the third-largest percentage increase from 2022 to 2023 at 45%.

Those trends are in part due to the skyrocketing housing prices across the state: Montana ranks eighth among states for fastest home price appreciation since 2020.

The "typical home value" in Montana averaged $440,000 in the first quarter of 2023, up from $280,000 three years ago, according to a state report. As of 2021, 42% of renters were classified as cost-burdened, meaning they spent more than 30% of their household income solely on rent.

In major homelessness case, US Supreme Court upholds ban on sleeping outside (2)

Victoria Eavis is a reporter for the Montana State News Bureau.

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In major homelessness case, US Supreme Court upholds ban on sleeping outside (2024)

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