U.S. Supreme Court Reinforces Human Rights of the Homeless

The Court’s decision was without dissent.

Posted Dec 17, 2019

The case began in Boise, Idaho, in 2009, when six homeless people sued the city for prosecuting them. They argued that the city’s laws violated their constitutional rights. The case later reached the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Idaho, Washington, Oregon, and California. In 2018, the 9th Circuit Court ruled that the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, which bars cruel and unusual punishment, prohibits punishing homeless people if there are more of them than there are available shelter beds. 

The appeals court said: “As long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.” The city of Boise then appealed this ruling to the United States Supreme Court on December 6, 2019.

With no dissenting opinions, the U.S. Supreme Court on December 16 struck a blow to cities that would refuse homeless people basic civil and human rights. Refusing to hear Boise’s appeal, the Supreme Court let stand the 9th Circuit’s ruling that the homeless have the constitutional right to live on city streets and in public parks if a city does not provide enough shelter beds for them.

Many experts agree that a major cause of homelessness is the lack of affordable housing available to low-income people, who often suffer from mental and physical health issues. 

The Supreme Court decision to let the appeals court ruling stand has brought the issue of homeless Americans into the public arena. Up to now, this vulnerable and helpless sector of the population has had no political voice. The high court's decision means that cities, states, and even national politicians can no longer evade the issue. The increasing level of income inequality and homelessness is no longer only a problem in third-world countries in Africa, Asia, or South America. It is a social, economic, and health problem right here in the United States that must be addressed with well run shelters and low cost housing opportunities.