The United States Supreme Court on Monday let stand a ruling by a lower court that stipulates the homeless have a right to sleep on sidewalks or in public parks if no other shelter is available to them.
The justices refused to hear a case from Boise, Idaho, that challenged a ruling from the Ninth Circuit Court. That ruling said prosecuting people for sleeping in this manner violated their constitutional rights under the 8th Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.
This is a subject on which this analyst has some knowledge.
I ran a homeless shelter for four years. The shelter I directed was one that exclusively served U.S. military veterans, so the bulk of my experience was limited to my contact with that specific clientele.
But I’ve also worked with other shelters that served very diverse populations — diverse meaning a wide range of different people under our roof, not the PC version of the term.
To me, the justices failed to recognize three factors in this debate.
One, there are homeless people who choose to be that way regardless of available shelter.
Two, homelessness is most rampant in our nation’s largest cities — and those cities almost always have shelter of some sort available. During inclement weather, some police stations even open up to house the homeless.
Three, what are the costs to business owners in areas where the homeless set up camp, sleep, or ask for money from passersby, sometimes very aggressively?
Because of mental health issues or an antipathy to the general rules of society, there are individuals who prefer sleeping in an outdoor urban setting. That may sound absurd, but it’s nevertheless the reality.
While this does not define the majority of the homeless, those who do will turn down city or charitable sleeping arrangements when offered. I’ve seen it happen numerous times. If the high court’s premise is that these homeless people have no other option, then it is mistaken in some cases.
The homeless can generally find shelter — from churches to shelters to public safety locations — if they search hard enough. In Philadelphia, where I worked in two shelters, this was the constant case. Granted, those shelters can be substandard and dangerous.
However, the remedy, then, is not to encourage outdoor living arrangements but to invest time and resources to make shelters better equipped to carry out their humanitarian mission.
Property owners have rights, too, and one of them should include being able to conduct their business free from the harassing interference and obstacles to entering their establishments. Homeless people who pitch tents or use sleeping bags in front of the sidewalk entrances of businesses are doing just that.
They more often than not will also use those locations to ask for money from potential patrons of a business — thus driving away customers. That is simply not fair to business owners.
The rights of the homeless need to be protected. They should not be harassed or otherwise abused in any way.
But those rights must not impinge on the collective right to a safe community — where those who wish to may work and do so without inappropriate interruption of commerce.
The high court was wrong. A better way must be found.