close
close
Arizona homeless could be targeted by police under Supreme Court ruling allowing ban on public camping – Cronkite News

Arizona homeless could be targeted by police under Supreme Court ruling allowing ban on public camping – Cronkite News

Arizona homeless could be targeted by police under Supreme Court ruling allowing ban on public camping – Cronkite News

Advocates for homeless people in Arizona fear the Supreme Court has increased the risk of violence at the hands of police by upholding ordinances that criminalize sleeping in public places.

Last year, Phoenix made national headlines for months after a Maricopa County judge ordered the city’s largest homeless encampment, The Zone, to be cleared. Downtown businesses had complained it posed a safety hazard.

Human rights groups denounced the order. In November, the camp was cleared, displacing hundreds of people.

In June, the U.S. Department of Justice released a scathing report on the Phoenix Police Department following a nearly three-year investigation. The report found that Phoenix police systematically violated the rights of homeless people by illegally stopping, citing and arresting them and illegally disposing of their belongings.

The Supreme Court’s 6-3 ruling upheld an Oregon law, effectively ratifying similar ordinances in Phoenix and other cities that ban sleeping outdoors or camping in public spaces.

Arizona advocates fear the ruling has disastrous implications.

“Homelessness is complex. Its causes are multiple, and so may be the public policy responses needed to address it,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the majority.

Jared Keenan, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, expressed concern about the effect the ruling will have on homeless people across the state.

“It’s harder to imagine a clearer example of excessive punishment than fining, arresting and jailing people for sleeping outside when they have nowhere else to go. And that’s the situation here in Phoenix, where we don’t have enough shelter space, affordable housing or long-term housing,” Keenan said. “The Supreme Court has given cities the green light to criminalize homelessness.”

Arizona has long been criticized for its treatment of homeless people. In November 2022, the ACLU of Arizona filed a lawsuit accusing Phoenix of punishing homeless people for sleeping outdoors and destroying their personal property without warning.

“Instead of using criminalization as another tool in their toolbox, as city officials claim they should, they are using it as their primary tool,” Keenan said.

Criminalizing homelessness “is not only cruel, but counterproductive,” she said. Like other advocates, she pointed to expanding affordable housing and social services as ways to address the root causes of homelessness.

“Criminalization doesn’t end anyone’s homelessness. The way to solve homelessness is to provide them with the housing and support services they want and need,” said Ann Oliva, executive director of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

“We need investments at the federal level to address the affordable housing crisis and shortage that is affecting not just Arizona,” but communities across the country, she said. “It won’t be solved without some significant investments.”

According to the state Department of Economic Security, the number of people without permanent housing increased by 29% in Arizona between 2020 and 2023. Over the past five years, homelessness has increased by nearly 73%, according to DES.

According to the Justice Department report, more than one-third of all arrests in Phoenix between 2016 and 2022 were of homeless people. The Justice Department found many of these stops, summonses and arrests to be unconstitutional.

How Phoenix has responded

On the day of the Supreme Court ruling, the city of Phoenix issued a statement saying it had sought to “address the encampments in a dignified and compassionate manner,” with the goal of ending homelessness while “preserving the quality of life in our neighborhoods for all residents.”

Additionally, “the city will continue to lead with services and will not criminalize homeless individuals,” said the statement, provided by the city’s Office of Homeless Solutions.

In December 2022, a federal judge in Arizona ordered Phoenix to stop enforcing camping bans, seizing property without notice, and destroying property without opportunity to pick it up.

Last October, the court modified the order to align it with a ruling by the liberal 9th ​​U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (which also handles Arizona cases) involving an ordinance in Grants Pass, Oregon.

The 9th Circuit held that it was unconstitutional for cities to target homeless people. Grants Pass had banned the use of cardboard boxes, pillows or blankets for sleeping in public. It was that ruling that the Supreme Court reversed on June 28 in the case City of Grants Pass v. Johnson.

According to the Justice Department report, Phoenix police repeatedly violated or ignored the court order in 2022 and 2023, and had failed to adequately train officers on “how to follow the law, nor supervise them to ensure they do so.”

While seizures of personal property improved in “highly visible areas,” raids in other areas failed to meet constitutional standards, the report said.

In one case, officers arrested seven people who were sitting and sleeping on a public sidewalk and charged them with unlawful trespassing. The Justice Department called the arrests illegal.

The officers left their belongings on the sidewalk despite their pleas.

“Please. All my stuff is here. Everything. Please,” one woman said, according to the Justice Department, to which the officer responded: “This is all trash. There’s nothing.”

The Justice Department documented numerous instances of police officers disposing of personal belongings while rescuing homeless people. One man lost the urn containing a family member’s ashes. Many others reported losing items the Justice Department said they needed to survive, such as clothing, tents, medications and personal identification, including Social Security cards.

A homeless woman lost her birth certificate when the city tore down her tent, “making it impossible for her to obtain housing,” the report said.

On one occasion, officers said, “You are trash, and this is trash,” as they threw away a homeless man’s personal belongings.

Arizona is one of the fastest-growing states. A shortage of affordable housing has exacerbated the homeless crisis, outstripping housing capacity in Phoenix even though the city has invested $140 million in shelters and other homeless services, according to the Justice Department.

“The city tends to view homeless communities as a problem, rather than as human beings. It’s much easier to try to make people disappear through incarceration than to address the homeless crisis,” said Ben Laughlin, policy and research coordinator for Poder in Action, a civil rights advocacy organization.

While the Supreme Court has affirmed the constitutionality of camping bans, advocates hope to see policies adopted that take a longer-term approach than policing.

But, Keenan said, “we fear the city will redouble its efforts to criminalize homeless people.”