An unhoused man lies on a large brown cushion in the grass
Homeless residents in San Jose like Antonio De Viche, 57, may be forced to move into shelters or be hit with citations and possibly arrested after a historic Supreme Court ruling. Photo by Annalise Freimarck

San Jose homeless resident Antonio de Viche prefers the streets to shelter or temporary housing, where he doesn’t feel safe. But that could all change with today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision that will allow cities to ban homeless people from sleeping outside.

The Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 decision that it is not unconstitutional for cities across the country to cite homeless people for camping on public property. In City of Grants Pass v. Johnson, a group of unhoused people in a small Oregon city argued that their city’s rules on homelessness violated the Eighth Amendment as cruel and unusual punishment. But the court’s majority disagree.

Individuals like De Viche, 57, and homeless for roughly nine years, will now find themselves in uncharted territory. De Viche said there are often rats in shelters. He said he once saw a person get stabbed with a pair of scissors, so he’d rather risk it on the streets, sleeping in different places each night to avoid trouble. When he needs to, he pays for temporary shelter, such as hotel rooms, using his own money when able.

“”(The shelters are) kind of chaotic because if you’ve been homeless on the street (and) you put (unhoused people) inside of an apartment complex, a lot of them don’t forget their bad habits,” he told San José Spotlight.

San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan said the ruling will not change the city’s existing homelessness strategy, but rather enforce a scaled approach. First, the city offers resources and shelter repeatedly, then people in camps who refuse services will be swept and lastly, unhoused people can be cited or arrested.

The San Jose Police Department, which conducts sweeps and gives out citations, was not available for comment.

Mahan said when given the choice between shelter and being swept, most unhoused people chose shelter, often creating a waitlist of hundreds of people. Now, after the ruling, he’s calling on the California legislature to create a statewide plan to address homelessness similar to San Jose’s strategy of increased shelters and support, like safe sleeping sites.

“The common sense approach is to mandate that cities and counties across the state build sufficient shelters, beds and treatment centers for those who need them and then require that they are used,” he said.

The ruling comes after Mahan increased sweeps, creating “no return” zones, after San Jose was ordered to clear encampments along waterways by the state water board. The city has the fourth largest homeless population per capita in the country, with approximately 6,340 unhoused people out of 9,903 homeless people in Santa Clara County, according to the county’s 2023 point-in-time count, a biennial survey of the region’s homeless residents.

The court decision is getting mixed reactions from advocates and other officials.

Jennifer Hark Dietz, CEO of homelessness nonprofit People Assisting the Homeless (PATH), said the punitive measures that could be enforced under the ruling aren’t the solution to homelessness.

“Punishing people for being unsheltered is cruel and will not put an end to our homelessness crisis,” she told San José Spotlight. “As an organization dedicated to ending homelessness, PATH will continue to advocate for housing and services, not handcuffs.”

San Jose is also working to increase homeless shelters and housing and plans to add more than 1,200 slots in shelters over the next year, including hundreds of modular homes and safe sleep sites, the mayor said.

The ruling also means that cities in the county can enforce different measures to address homelessness, possibly creating a mixed bag of legislation across city lines.

County Board of Supervisors President Susan Ellenberg said she doesn’t want the ruling to increase punitive measures for unhoused people, but rather she wants the county’s cities to increase housing resources for the homeless residents.

“I hope the elected leaders in our community behave as the good actors I believe them to be and continue to focus on finding real solutions to homelessness rather than pointing to this decision as license simply to sweep people out of sight,” she told San José Spotlight.

De Viche said he has mixed feelings about the ruling. For now, he’ll continue living on the streets.

“I don’t know if it’s fair, but it’s part of life,” he said. “You gotta follow the law.”

Contact Annalise Freimarck at [email protected] or follow @annalise_ellen on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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