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Phoenix councilwoman 'relieved' U.S. Supreme Court upholds public camping ban

A person sleeps on a sidewalk next to belongings in Phoenix in June 2024.
Christina Estes/KJZZ
A person sleeps on a sidewalk next to belongings in Phoenix in June 2024.

A Phoenix city councilwoman described Friday’s Supreme Court ruling that allows cities to enforce bans on public camping as a victory.

The ruling involves a case from Oregon that impacts local governments and homeless people across the country. The Supreme Court reversed a lower court ruling that said outdoor sleeping bans amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. Phoenix had been under a court order that kept cities from enforcing bans if shelter beds were not available.

“I’m very relieved,” said Councilwoman Ann O’Brien. “I think it is a huge victory for the city of Phoenix and all of its residents."

Ann O'Brien
City of Phoenix
Ann O'Brien

In May, O’Brien and her colleagues voted to expand the city’s public camping ban to within 500 feet of schools, day care centers, parks and shelters. The expanded ordinance will take effect Sept. 1. Violators face a Level 3 misdemeanor with a maximum fine of $100.

“I hope that we will continue to offer services but that we as a local city will be able to determine if an encampment is a problem and get folks services,” she said.

She led the push to create a community court where unhoused people arrested for low level crimes can get help with housing, health care and other issues.

“This is not about big sweeps and throwing people in jail, but we have to follow our laws, and the citizens of Phoenix, the business owners, they deserve that as well. They're entitled to a quality of life, as well,” O’Brien said.

Phoenix Councilman Carlos Galindo-Elvira posted his reaction on X:

Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego released the following statement:

“Cities across the nation are on the frontlines of the homelessness crisis, and Phoenix is no different—providing resources and solutions at a breakneck pace for a complex and ever-changing challenge. Phoenix has continued to make meaningful progress on this issue while simultaneously navigating a web of conflicting legal opinions, and today’s Supreme Court ruling provides the necessary clarity we need to help even more people find safe, stable shelter," Gallego said.

District 8 Councilwoman Hodge Washington also released a statement on Friday's Supreme Court ruling:

“Today’s ruling in City of Grants Pass v. Johnson clarified a legal question on the extent of enforcement when it comes to those experiencing homelessness.  The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision does not change the core challenges faced by those that are unsheltered or the complex issues that contribute to housing instability.  Those two issues are chief among the concerns that I hear from constituents on a daily basis. The decision provides municipalities with an accountability tool, if and when appropriate. 

As your Councilmember, I will continue to ensure Phoenix leads with meaningful services, invests in necessary resources, and furthers a dignified and balanced approach when engaging with our unsheltered residents. Phoenix continues to increase the number of shelter beds to address the unprecedented need and we will continue to find ways to develop more attainable housing. Today’s decision is also a stark reminder that all levels of government in our region need to do more to collectively address the challenges we face with the most vulnerable among us.  I hope that the focus remains on the need for collaborative and comprehensive solutions.”

Phoenix Vice Mayor Debra Stark also responded to the ruling:

"Based on the Supreme Court outcome today, our current policies and practices are consistent with their decision. This includes the recent revisions to our camping bans for proximity to schools. However, when we get a complaint, we SHOULD continue to lead with services (such as securing shelter, seeking treatment, or finding family for help) and ask for compliance before resorting to an arrest or citation. I have been happy to see the success of the community court when we are forced to cite for noncompliance with private property trespass or violation of our city code for camping; and, therefore, will continue to support the community court," she said.

After the city's legal team reviewed the ruling on Friday, KJZZ received the following statement:

"The City of Phoenix has worked strategically over the last several years to balance court orders from two different lawsuits, community needs, and available resources to address homelessness in our community. The City will continue to lead with services and will not criminalize homelessness, while we evaluate our programs based on the court’s ruling today. The City is confident in the processes created by the Office of Homeless Solutions and supporting departments to address encampments in a dignified and compassionate manner, connecting our most vulnerable residents with services while preserving the quality of life in our neighborhoods for all residents.

"The 2024 Maricopa County Point-in-Time Count found a decrease of 19 percent in unsheltered homelessness within the City Phoenix and the first annual reduction in homelessness in Maricopa County since 2017. When offered diverse options that fit individualized needs, the vast majority of people experiencing homelessness will accept help and services. The City of Phoenix has prioritized creating more indoor shelter than ever before in the last several years. 790 new permanent shelter beds are planned for 2024 and 2025. 480 temporary beds were added in 2023 to serve people in need while the City continues to build permanent solutions. 592 permanent beds were also added in 2022. While we know shelter alone does not end homelessness, it is a crucial first step for many to connect with the right resources and support to end their homelessness. The City’s investments in shelter and appropriate services also help the City address encampments in neighborhoods, parks, transit stops, and other locations, alleviating public health and safety concerns.

"The City is committed to its work in ending homelessness and recognizes that it requires comprehensive solutions such as affordable housing and prevention supports. The City will continue working diligently to create sustainable solutions for our community as a whole."

As a senior field correspondent, Christina Estes focuses on stories that impact our economy, your wallet and public policy.
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