An encampment on a sidewalk on April 15, 2024 in Escondido. / Ariana Drehsler for Planetcob

The city of San Diego isn’t hurrying to change its approach to homelessness following a blockbuster U.S. Supreme Court ruling declared anti-camping enforcement isn’t cruel or unusual.

But Friday’s ruling could influence other policies around the county, including a yet-to-be introduced San Diego County camping ban county supervisors asked bureaucrats to craft last fall.

Quick context: Many West Coast cities including San Diego implored the nation’s top court to weigh in on the legality of Grants Pass, Ore.’s camping ban a few years after three of the small Oregon city’s homeless residents sued the city and sought to overturn its camping ban. In 2020, a court sided with the homeless residents and said it was a violation of the Eighth Amendment to restrict camping and sleeping in public if homeless residents don’t have another place to go. Now the Supreme Court has decided camping bans aren’t cruel and unusual and thus don’t violate the Constitution.

What’s this mean for the city of San Diego? The city has multiple laws on the books that allow it to police homelessness, including the camping ban passed last year.

Rachel Laing, a spokesperson for Mayor Todd Gloria, said Friday that Gloria’s team views the Supreme Court ruling as a validation of the camping ban. The ordinance bars homeless camps in public spaces when shelter is available and in certain locations, like parks and near schools, even when it isn’t.

“There will be a meeting with (Police) Chief (Scott) Wahl and the City Attorney’s office to review the ruling and see if any changes are warranted, but at this point, we are seeing it as authority to continue our enforcement push concurrent with expanding shelter,” Laing wrote in an email.

City Attorney Mara Elliott’s office struck a similar tone, noting the city’s top lawyers were satisfied the ruling backs what they’ve described as the city’s balanced approach to protecting both homeless San Diegans and the broader public.

“As prosecutors, we will continue to enforce the law by bringing forward those cases which can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt,” the office wrote in a statement. “The decision today doesn't change the city's municipal code or our commitment to uphold it.”

The two candidates vying to replace Elliott had similar takes.

Assemblymember Brian Maienschein wrote in a statement city officials “now have clarity on the constitutionality of their actions” following “the longstanding legal limbo” while now-Chief Deputy City Attorney Heather Ferbert, who drafted the legal analysis of the city’s camping ban ordinance, wrote that Grants Pass upholds the ban and offers the city “more local control over our local homelessness response.”

Worth noting: If the city wants to make changes to its legal approach to policing homeless camps following Friday’s ruling, it can’t make dramatic changes overnight. Those would require City Council or a judge’s approval.

The camping ban formally codified the city’s progressive enforcement model. Police first offer shelter before ticketing people for violations. Then they increase the penalty upon further encounters.

The city also has multiple legal settlements that dictate steps it must take before ticketing or arresting homeless San Diegans for violations tied to their homelessness.

For example, a 2007 settlement requires police to offer an open shelter bed to people they encounter on the street between 9 p.m. and 5:30 a.m. before they can cite or arrest them for illegal lodging. In other words, officers can’t arrest homeless residents for settling somewhere without permission if shelters are full.

While illegal lodging hasn’t been the city’s prime tool for cracking down on homeless camps in recent years, that settlement guided the city’s progressive enforcement model.

Attorney Scott Dreher, who negotiated the 2007 settlement, said Friday that any changes to those settlements would require a judge’s approval – and that he’ll be watching closely to see how the city responds to the Grants Pass case.

“My fear is the city will interpret this as, ‘Let’s go. We can do whatever we want,’” Dreher said.

But Dreher doesn’t believe the Grants Pass ruling will prevent challenges tied to homelessness enforcement on grounds beyond the Eighth Amendment cruel and unusual punishment argument that was the focus of this case.

What about other parts of the county? The Grants Pass case could have a much greater impact outside the city of San Diego.

City officials in Escondido, which last week passed a camping ban similar to the city of San Diego’s, have already said they may change their new ordinance following the Grants Pass decision. This year’s homeless census showed Escondido has the highest number of unsheltered homeless residents in North County . Though it has far fewer shelter beds than homeless residents. Escondido officials didn’t appear to be hurrying to add more shelter beds.

Poway, which also has a camping ban on the books and hasn’t made aggressive moves to add shelter, may view the ruling as an opening to amend its ban too.

The Grants Pass ruling could also have a major impact for the forthcoming county camping ban proposal that East County Supervisor Joel Anderson pushed for last fall.

County supervisors voted unanimously last October to direct staff to draft an ordinance allowing the county to clear homeless camps in unincorporated areas where there are concerns about fires or other safety hazards.

Anderson and North County Supervisor Jim Desmond, both Republicans, cheered the Grants Pass decision and hinted that they see it as an opportunity.

“Today’s ruling by the Supreme Court should allow us to more appropriately address the homelessness crisis and enact ordinances such as the one I called for to help reclaim our public parks and sidewalks while preventing pollution and wildfires from illegal encampments,” Anderson wrote in a Friday statement.

Desmond wrote that the ruling was “paramount for the safety and well-being of our community and for restoring the lives of those suffering.”

“It's time for the city and county to restrict all sleeping on sidewalks,” he wrote.

Anderson and Desmond’s Democratic colleagues didn’t issue statements on Friday.

Back in October – before now-Supervisor Monica Montgomery Steppe took office – Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer and board Chairwoman Nora Vargas told Anderson they appreciated his stated focus on safety concerns in proposing a county camping ban. Montgomery Steppe, though, opposed the city’s camping ban when she was on the City Council.

Lawson-Remer and Vargas said they would back Anderson’s proposal with that aim, plus significant information on plans for the county to expand shelter options and ensure a humane approach that aims to avoid criminalizing homeless residents.

Bottom line: Concerns about shelter offerings could still throttle the county’s camping ban push.

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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