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Are bans on homeless encampments, sleeping outside “cruel and unusual”? Policy experts discuss Supreme Court case

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FILE - A woman gathers possessions to take before a homeless encampment was cleaned up in San Francisco, Aug. 29, 2023. The Supreme Court will hear its most significant case on homelessness in decades Monday, April 22, 2024, as record numbers of people in America are without a permanent place to live. The justices will consider a challenge to rulings from a California-based federal appeals court that found punishing people for sleeping outside when shelter space is lacking amounts to unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)
image of woman gathering possessions to take before a homeless encampment was cleaned up in San Francisco on Aug. 29, 2023

The Supreme Court this week weighed in on whether local ordinances in a southwest Oregon city that essentially prohibit homeless people from sleeping in public violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Specifically, the laws fine those who are homeless from using “blankets, pillows or cardboard boxes” as protection while sleeping within the city limits.

“It was an interesting hearing that covered a lot of ground,” says Jeremy R. Paul, professor at the Northeastern University School of Law. “But if every town is allowed to make it impossible to be homeless or unhoused, many will be incentivized to do just that.” Indeed, Northeastern public policy experts warn that such bans are a step in the wrong direction, especially at the backing of the high court. As rates of homelessness outstrip shelter accommodations nationwide—a direct result of the broader housing and cost-of-living crises—the experts emphasized that punitive measures will only compound the problem. 

From trauma-informed solutions to human-centered designs, better thinking on the topic is critical, they say. “Are there policy designs that can actually help everyone or as many people as possible, not just one singular group?” says Kim Lucas, professor of the practice in public policy and economic justice. “As we think about human-centered design, we have to think about the needs and wants of different constituencies—we have to, especially in cases that focus on the public realm.”

Read more at Northeastern Global News.

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