Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

SCOTUS ruling against homeless encampments unlikely to affect Pittsburgh

Tents along a sidewalk.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
A tent encampment along the Allegheny Riverfront.

Despite Friday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Pittsburgh-area leaders say the city has no plans to ban people from sleeping and camping in public spaces.

The conservative-majority court overturned a California appeals court ruling that found bans on sleeping in public spaces when no shelter space is available to be unconstitutional. The ruling upheld an Oregon city’s laws aimed at banning homeless residents from sleeping outdoors.

In Pittsburgh, leaders at the city and county level have taken a housing-first approach to homelessness. Though the city established a policy a year ago outlining when to clear homeless encampments, it has rarely been applied. According to a statement from Mayor Ed Gainey, that appears unlikely to change.

“Nothing about the ruling today will change Pittsburgh’s approach to caring for our unhoused residents with dignity and respect,” Gainey said.

WESA Inbox Edition Newsletter

Start your morning with today's news on Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania.

Though the ruling changes current law in only Oregon, California, and the seven other Western states covered by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, advocates warn it could have ripple effects on homelessness policies around the country.

It would make it easier for cities to ban homeless residents from sleeping outside and enforce those laws with civil fines or jail time.

But it doesn’t appear that the decision will have any immediate effect in Pittsburgh or Allegheny County. When questioned about the ruling, Gainey criticized it as an attempt to “criminalize unhoused people simply for being unhoused.”

Allegheny County Executive Sara Innamorato, whose Department of Human Services manages a multimillion dollar annual budget to address housing insecurity, said the ruling will not impact the local response to homelessness at the county level, either.

Earlier this month, Innamorato unveiled a plan to create or identify 500 units of “deeply subsidized, affordable housing,” in the next few years. She pledged Friday to continue approaching the issue of homelessness by focusing on housing supply rather than criminal charges.

“In Allegheny County, we will continue to work with our partners to provide more affordable housing, to treat our unhoused neighbors with care and dignity, and to provide the programs and services to help people exit homelessness so they can be connected to their communities and access opportunities to help them live stable, dignified lives — like we all deserve,” Innamorato said in a statement.

Gainey echoed the promise of Innamorato’s "500 in 500" plan.

“Today serves as a reminder of the critical need for more transitional and affordable housing, and why we are proud to partner with the county on their '500 in 500' plan,” he said.

Friday’s decision overturns a California appeals court ruling that found laws that ban sleeping in public spaces to violate the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects from cruel and unusual punishment.

Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the 6-3 majority opinion. In it, he argued that “generally applicable laws” regulating camping could not qualify as cruel and unusual punishment.

“The Constitution’s Eighth Amendment serves many important functions, but it does not authorize federal judges to wrest those rights and responsibilities from the American people and in their place dictate this Nation’s homelessness policy,” Gorsuch wrote.

The majority opinion argued that policy regulating homelessness should be left to cities and states.

“Homelessness is complex,” Gorsuch wrote. “A handful of judges cannot begin to ‘match’ the collective wisdom the American people possess in deciding ‘how best to handle’ a pressing social question like homelessness.”

In a dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote, “Sleep is a biological necessity, not a crime. For some people, sleeping outside is their only option.” She said the reversal “punishes them for being homeless,” which she called “unconscionable and unconstitutional.”

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.
Julia Zenkevich reports on Allegheny County government for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at