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What a look at Albuquerque tells us about Supreme Court's ruling on public camping bans

homeless encampment
Katherine Davis-Young/KJZZ
A homeless encampment in Downtown Phoenix

The U.S. Supreme Court last week ruled in favor of an Oregon town and its ordinance prohibiting people experiencing homelessness from camping in public spaces. Known as the Grants Pass case, after the Oregon community, the majority said enforcing the bans did not constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

In response to the ruling, the city of Phoenix said it would not criminalize homelessness. Groups that help those experiencing homelessness, though, say they’re concerned about the impact of the decision.

Nicole Santa Cruz has been reporting on this, specifically in Albuquerque, for ProPublica, and joins The Show to talk about what she’s found.

Full conversation

MARK BRODIE: So you have been speaking with a lot of folks in sort of who have, who are experiencing homelessness groups that are trying to help them in and around Albuquerque, New Mexico. What kinds of things did you hear from them before this ruling late last week?

NICOLE SANTA CRUZ: Yeah. So before this ruling, I traveled to Albuquerque and talked to people who told me that while removing encampments, people or the city had discarded very important items that they needed to survive, like tents, blankets, sleeping bags, clothing, IDs, birth certificates, Social Security cards, and then in some cases, sentimental items like ashes or family photos.

BRODIE: So what was the rationale behind that from, from law enforcement in Albuquerque? Like why did they say they were doing that?

SANTA CRUZ: So they, they, the mayor actually, he, he said that he wanted to clear encampments in the city, that encampments were not going to be tolerated in Albuquerque. But they said that basically they were, they could do that because, well, they said that they weren't throwing people's property away.

So they denied violating their own city policy. And they said that they, they followed their policy, which was to store possessions that are kind of left at an encampment. But they actually don't do that.

BRODIE: So you mentioned that, you know, some of the items that were either thrown away or stored, however, you know, I guess it depends on which side you talk to. Some of them were sort of logistical things that people needed like IDs. Some, you were more sentimental.

You mentioned, I think you reported on one person who lost her, her dentures and she was very concerned about how that would impact maybe her ability to get a job and, and be able to not be homeless anymore.

SANTA CRUZ: Yeah. So she was really upset about losing her dentures because it was really difficult to obtain those dentures. In the first place, you have to have multiple appointments to, to get them. And so when they were thrown away, she was heartbroken because first off, she just felt unattractive, like no one would want to hire her without any teeth. And then there's the practical implications of that, which is that she can't eat it, it, it disrupts, you know, being able to eat, she can't eat hard foods.She has to eat soft foods. So, you know, it had a, it had an enormous impact on her life.

BRODIE: So what are folks saying about what may or may not change in the wake of this ruling? Like how might what you found in Albuquerque before the ruling be affected by what the Supreme Court did?

SANTA CRUZ: Yeah. So if cities enact more camping bans, that could require an increased law enforcement presence, which could increase the loss of property, if you have a city that's trying to enforce it. Camping ban, enforcing a camping ban is going to mean removing encampments or sweeping and that those interactions frequently lead to loss of property. Even if cities have the policies in place to prevent that property loss.

BRODIE: So, I mean, is there any hope that, that cities maybe can enforce these bans and not just toss people's stuff? Like, is there a way to do, does anybody think there is actually a workable way to make it so that cities can enforce their ordinances while not just getting rid of people's stuff?

SANTA CRUZ: Well, I think they just have to be very careful about the way that they do it. And if they have a policy in place, they actually have to adhere to the policy. So if say a city has a storage program where they say that they will store people's property left at encampments, then they actually have to store people's property and communicate the storage program. Let people know about it and also make it accessible so that people can go and retrieve their belongings if they're taken in a clean up.

BRODIE: So obviously, you know, cities and towns have known that this case was working its way through the courts. A ruling had been expected for a little while based on your reporting. Did you have the sense that cities were doing anything to try to prepare for this or thinking about how they might respond and maybe change or amend ordinances based on what the Supreme Court ruled?

SANTA CRUZ: I've heard from advocates that cities have either policies that they are starting to pass or they're seeking advice or information from their city attorneys to determine just what they can do now, in terms of punishing people for sleeping outside. I know that various cities have enacted camping bans. So now it's, you know, how, how strict are they going to be in enforcing their camping bans? Are they going to charge people or not?

BRODIE: Well, I wonder if that's sort of the, the difference here, if the, the ordinances themselves might look relatively similar from city to city, but the level of enforcement might be where some are differentiated.

SANTA CRUZ: Yes, definitely. So, it's about what is actually happening on the streets and how many people are actually being cited and then also who's actually being prosecuted because sometimes people can be cited but they're not actually prosecuted for these crimes.

BRODIE: Do you get the sense that, that cities are really like trying to figure out how to walk that tightrope of enforcement while also not, as city of Phoenix said it wouldn't do, criminalize homelessness?

SANTA CRUZ: I think it remains to be seen what happens and the posture that cities take regarding this issue.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text is edited for length and clarity, and may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.
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