SCOTUS ruling on homeless camps opens door to tougher crackdowns in Utah

Friday’s ruling will give cities more latitude in enforcing no-camping ordinances.

Salt Lake City could get tougher on its enforcement of homeless camps following a new U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Friday’s 6-3 court decision along ideological lines found that enforcing no-camping laws on public property does not constitute “cruel and unusual punishment,” giving cities the option to enforce camping bans regardless of shelter availability.

“Homelessness is complex. Its causes are many,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the court’s majority opinion. “So may be the public policy responses required to address it … A handful of federal judges cannot begin to ‘match’ the collective wisdom the American people possess in deciding ‘how best to handle’ a pressing social question like homelessness.”

The decision is a break from a previous ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in another case. In that instance, the appellate court ruled that governments may not enforce camping bans if no shelter options are available. Salt Lake City, while not in the 9th Circuit, has relied on this ruling to justify its approach to camping enforcement.

Authorities in Utah’s capital sharpened their focus late last year in cracking down on homeless camps. Under the Salt Lake City Police Department’s enforcement initiative, officers focus on moving people out of public places and into shelter when it is available. Enforcement relaxes when shelters are full.

Could more crackdowns be coming?

Now, under the high court’s ruling, the legal justification Salt Lake City used for its enforcement approach has vanished, and homeless camps may be broken up regardless of whether shelter options exist.

It isn’t yet clear whether that will happen.

The city attorney’s office is still reviewing the court’s decision and how it will impact camping ordinances, Andrew Wittenberg, a spokesperson for Mayor Erin Mendenhall, said in a statement.

“Salt Lake City has and will continue to enforce local ordinances to keep public spaces open, clean and safe for everyone to enjoy,” Wittenberg said. “We continue to be committed to working with our county and state partners to address homelessness most directly through evidenced-based interventions including housing, emergency shelter and coordinated services that are in too short supply.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A homeless camp is pictured next to the Jordan River across from Cottonwood Park in Salt Lake City on Monday, April 29, 2024.

The city could face pressure from the state to take a more hardline approach. This year, legislators allowed the state board of homeless services to divert funding from cities that host shelters if local authorities don’t enforce camping bans.

Salt Lake City is eligible to receive nearly $3 million annually for hosting homeless shelters, and it could get more cash for hosting winter overflow shelter space.

It’s also unclear whether state officials intend to require cities to enforce camping bans even when no shelter is available. A spokesperson for Gov. Spencer Cox’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

State homelessness coordinator Wayne Niederhauser said in a statement that his office is still working to determine how Friday’s decision will affect local governments.

“The Utah Office of Homeless Services prioritizes the need for shelter and housing for those experiencing homelessness,” Niederhauser said. “They are our family, friends and neighbors and deserving of human dignity. No one should have to live in a place not meant for human habitation, and it is essential to enforce local laws for the safety of all in our communities.”

Advocacy groups split on court ruling

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) As authorities gather near a homeless camp off Victory Road in Salt Lake City, people drag their belongings away from the site, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2023.

Solutions Utah, a group focused on homelessness policy in the Beehive State, lauded the court’s ruling and called on cities to take a tougher approach to enforcement.

“With this enforceable authority, cities can keep their parks, streets, sidewalks and other public places open, safe, clean and accessible for their intended uses,” the organization said in a statement. “Now the state of Utah, with its communities, cities, and counties, has the legal responsibility to enforce anti-camping and related laws, and we encourage all to do so.”

Bill Tibbitts, deputy executive director of the nonprofit Crossroads Urban Center, said the court’s ruling could lead to cities criminalizing homelessness, which “never works.” Unless there’s a bigger jail, he added, authorities will never be able to arrest everyone who needs to sleep outside.

If those who need tents in the frigid winter months aren’t able to use them, they could die, he said. Stricter enforcement, he contended, would result in unsheltered people hiding in public areas so they are able to sleep.

“You may not like seeing a tent,” he said, “but you’re probably going to be less happy if people are pushed out of the parks and you find them hiding in the bushes in your front yard.”