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San Diego leaders have mixed reactions to Supreme Court’s homelessness ruling

The Supreme Court has ruled that cities can punish homeless people for camping on public property – even if they have nowhere else to go. KPBS reporter Katie Anastas says while some are praising the ruling, others say it criminalizes homelessness.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday sided with the city of Grants Pass, Oregon, saying the city's prohibition of homeless people sleeping in public spaces does not amount to cruel and unusual punishment.

That city's camping ban includes parks, parking lots and sidewalks, even if there isn’t adequate shelter available.

Some San Diego leaders praised the 6-3 ruling. Others said it criminalizes homelessness.


“The Grants Pass ruling opens a lot of doors to cities across the West Coast, and it could open doors for the city of San Diego if we wanted stricter regulations,” said San Diego City Councilmember Stephen Whitburn, who introduced the public camping ban the city approved last year. “I think the regulations we have in place now have begun to be effective, and I think that we should continue on with those.”

San Diego's Unsafe Camping Ordinance prohibits tent encampments in public spaces if shelter beds are available. Regardless of shelter availability, people can’t camp within two blocks of shelters or K-12 schools, near waterways, public transportation hubs and city parks “where a substantial public health and safety risk is determined.”

Whitburn said it’s working. The Downtown San Diego Partnership reported a 60% drop in its count of unsheltered people between May and December of last year.

“We have seen a significant reduction in the number of people living on the streets, particularly downtown,” he said. “A significant part of the reason why is because people understand that that is the law, and they’re taking advantage of shelter opportunities that are available to them.”

But Paul Downey, CEO of Serving Seniors, said many people leaving downtown encampments aren’t necessarily moving into shelters.


“We’ve simply shifted people from downtown to the neighboring communities,” Downey said. “All you have to do is look and see where people are. We’ve just reshuffled the deck.”

The 2024 Point-in-Time Count reported 3,489 unsheltered people in San Diego, up 6% from the year before. Other communities saw much larger increases, including a 47% increase in La Mesa, 58% in Chula Vista and 85% in Lemon Grove.

At the time, 87% of the city’s emergency shelter beds were full. Between the 2023 and 2024 Point-in-Time Counts, the number of sheltered homeless people within the city went up by 2%.

San Diego City Council President Sean Elo-Rivera voted against the Unsafe Camping Ordinance last year. In a statement, he said he was disappointed in the Supreme Court’s ruling but that it “doesn’t change our ability to focus on building affordable housing, preventing San Diegans from falling into homelessness with rental assistance and providing human-centered shelter with services.”

Tamara Kohler, CEO of the Regional Task Force on Homelessness, said those efforts are more effective ways to reduce homelessness.

“Arresting, fining, and jailing people for simply trying to survive is both costly and counterproductive, not to mention cruel,” Kohler said in a statement.

Other cities, including Poway, El Cajon and Chula Vista, have either passed or are considering measures similar to those of San Diego.

North County Supervisor Jim Desmond called the Supreme Court’s ruling a “significant victory for common sense.”

“This ruling empowers cities to enforce policies that maintain the cleanliness, safety, and accessibility of our public spaces,” he said.

California Senate Minority Leader Brian Jones (R-San Diego) agreed.

“We should have the right to use transit centers and public spaces without the challenge of walking through a homeless encampment,” he told KPBS.

Mayor Todd Gloria has requested a public city council hearing on his proposal for a 1,000-bed shelter. The city also plans to expand its Safe Parking Program, which provides places for people to sleep in their cars overnight legally.

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