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Politics & Policy

Chesa Boudin, homeless activists decry possible U.S. Supreme Court decision: ‘draconian’

A person under an umbrella sits on a bench in the rain, surrounded by belongings covered with a tarp.
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on a major case about homelessness this summer. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

The debate over a forthcoming U.S. Supreme Court ruling that could have far-reaching implications for homelessness in West Coast cities heated up on Tuesday after former San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin and a wide range of social service nonprofits warned the highly anticipated decision could cause drastic harm to those living on the streets.

In an amicus brief, or “friend of the court” filing submitted this week, a broad swath of the city’s homelessness advocates, officials in the Public Defender’s Office and labor unions asserted that the possible reversal of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in Johnson v. Grants Pass would criminalize poor and vulnerable residents.

The legal battle centers on the Ninth Circuit’s ruling that homeless residents have the right to camp outside if shelter space is unavailable. In January, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the appellate decision, and oral arguments are set for later this month. A decision is expected in late June.

The filing comes in direct opposition to the City of San Francisco and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s position on the ruling—both of whom say local governments need to have more flexibility when dealing with homelessness. In March, City Attorney David Chiu submitted his own amicus brief, arguing San Francisco officials needed to balance the billions spent combating homelessness with the ability to clear encampments in public spaces like sidewalks. 

On Tuesday, Boudin appeared to predict how the decision would unfold at the high court, which has leaned conservative for years on issues like abortion. Legal observers believe it’s likely the Supreme Court could overturn or reverse key aspects of the Ninth Circuit’s positions on homelessness. 

A man in a dark suit stands solemnly with a focused gaze amidst a dimly lit room, flanked by a masked woman holding papers and a uniformed officer.
Former San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin is warning the outcome of the forthcoming U.S. Supreme Court case related to homelessness could hurt the city's most vulnerable. | Camille Cohen

“The stakes are extremely high in the case pending before the Supreme Court,” said Boudin, who was recalled in 2022, at a virtual press conference. “We all know what the likely outcome is supposed to be.”

The 51-page amicus brief filed by advocates paints a long history of California cities repeatedly failing to address poverty and housing shortages while treating the issue of homelessness with disregard for individuals’ constitutional rights.

“California cities intend to cleanse themselves of their own hardworking residents rather than take accountability for a housing crisis they created,” the filing states. “This form of public banishment harkens the draconian penalties of Ancient Greece and was repudiated across the United States long ago.”

Others who signed the brief include San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju, the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, the San Francisco Tenants Union and Larkin Street Youth Services.

The outcome of the high court’s decision comes as San Francisco deals with its own legal battles with homelessness advocates. In 2022, the Coalition on Homelessness filed a lawsuit against the city, arguing that local officials had illegally destroyed homelessness encampments without providing an alternative shelter option.

In February, a federal magistrate judge agreed to pause the legal case until the Supreme Court’s ruling is made. However, a temporary injunction issued against the city that limits it from enforcing sitting, lying or lodging in the street stays in place.