In a decision eagerly awaited by officials across the Bay Area and beyond, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Friday that cities can clear homeless encampments even when those living on the street have nowhere else to go.

Since 2018, lower court rulings had prevented local governments in California and throughout the West from arresting or fining people for sleeping on public property if beds weren’t available in homeless shelters.

When cities moved to shut down an encampment, they were generally expected to offer everyone living there shelter or housing. But few cities had the resources to move all their unhoused residents indoors, and many have struggled to deal with those who are offered shelter but refuse it or stay only a short while before returning to the streets.

Officials across party lines from San Francisco to San Diego argued the shelter requirement had hamstrung efforts to close dangerous tent and vehicle camps and exacerbated the crisis. They had urged the high court to allow more flexibility in clearing and managing encampments.

On Friday, Gov. Gavin Newsom, a staunch Democrat, cheered the 6-3 decision, which saw the court’s conservative justices forming the majority.

“Today’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court provides state and local officials the definitive authority to implement and enforce policies to clear unsafe encampments from our streets,” Newsom said in a statement.

Across California, some 181,000 people experience homelessness on any given night, almost 30% of the nation’s unhoused population. The nine-county Bay Area has an estimated 37,000 homeless residents.

San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan, who’s pushed the city to expand targeted no-encampment zones while also scaling up “safe and dignified” shelter options, said city officials will continue offering shelter and services before carrying out sweeps.

But now Mahan said the city has the authority to cite or potentially arrest homeless people who repeatedly refuse a bed. San Francisco Mayor London Breed indicated that her city also could begin fining or arresting people for rejecting shelter.

“When all else fails, I think they have a choice between accepting shelter or leaving town,” Mahan said. “And if that fails, then I think we have to be more compulsory.”

Homeless people sometimes turn down shelter for a variety of personal reasons, from health and safety concerns to a reluctance to follow curfews or abide by rules governing pets.

Giovanni Rocco said he recently returned to a large encampment at San Jose’s Columbus Park after being told to leave a local shelter for leaving his dog unattended. Rocco, who’s trying to regain custody of his two young children, worries another shelter wouldn’t allow him to bring his 5-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter with him.

“I would try a shelter again, but I don’t know what shelter would let me go there,” he said.

“There’s gonna be a lot of people denying (shelter),” added Juanita Macias, who also lives at the encampment with her son and husband.

Giovanni Rocco, of San Jose, sits at a table at Columbus Park in San Jose, Calif., on Friday, June 28, 2024. (Shae Hammond/Bay Area News Group)
Giovanni Rocco, of San Jose, sits at a table at Columbus Park in San Jose, Calif., on Friday, June 28, 2024. (Shae Hammond/Bay Area News Group) 

The main question before the court was whether broad camping bans aimed at homeless people in Grants Pass, Oregon, a city of 39,000 with about 600 homeless people, amounted to cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.

In the court’s decision, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote that the camping bans could stand, in part because the fines and jail time imposed by Grants Pass are neither cruel nor unusual.

Crucially, the decision also removed the shelter requirement established by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Gorsuch, in the majority opinion, wrote that solving homelessness should be left to local officials, not the courts.

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

Homeless advocates, however, worry the ruling could clear the way for cities to “criminalize homelessness” and take a more aggressive approach to clearing encampments.

Juanita Macias, moved to San Jose when she was an 8-year-old, sits with her puppy, Nino, at Columbus Park in San Jose, Calif., on Friday, June 28, 2024. (Shae Hammond/Bay Area News Group)
Juanita Macias, moved to San Jose when she was an 8-year-old, sits with her puppy, Nino, at Columbus Park in San Jose, Calif., on Friday, June 28, 2024. (Shae Hammond/Bay Area News Group) 

“Today’s disappointing Supreme Court ruling may have put false solutions back on the table,” Brett Andrews, interim chief executive of the Bay Area homelessness solutions nonprofit All Home, said in a statement.

In recent years, homeless advocates and residents had invoked lower court rulings to sue cities throughout the Bay Area. In San Jose and Oakland, federal judges halted efforts to remove hundreds of people from massive encampments near the San Jose Mineta International Airport and along Wood Street in West Oakland until city officials could provide shelter for those living in the camps.

More recently, a federal court has limited San Francisco’s ability to clear encampments until the city can add more beds for its estimated 4,400 homeless residents living outdoors or in vehicles.

Frustrated by such rulings and under growing public pressure to address street homelessness, Newsom and cities including San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego filed legal briefs supporting Grants Pass. While local officials said they did not intend to punish people simply for being homeless, they argued that judges had made overly broad and ambiguous rulings in ordering local governments to provide “adequate shelter” and other services before clearing encampments.

In a news conference Friday, Mayor Breed said she expected the Supreme Court decision to allow San Francisco to quickly ramp up sweeps while still offering beds. “This is about people who are refusing (shelter),” she said.

At the same time, some local officials are raising concerns that smaller communities could pass strict camping bans to force more homeless people into the Bay Area’s big cities.

“This is why we are also taking steps to strengthen our encampment management policy, to ensure that this ruling is not used as an incentive for other cities to push their homelessness crisis into nearby cities,” Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao said in a statement.

Jeffrey Selbin, a UC Berkeley law professor who’s closely followed the Grants Pass case, said that despite Friday’s ruling, homeless people could still look to the lower courts to halt sweeps or camping bans. He noted the Grants Pass opinion applies only to Eighth Amendment claims, not the right to due process or federal disability protections.

“If cities think that what was making their lives miserable is over in terms of litigation, that’s just not true,” he said.

Cameron Duran contributed to this report.