Impact of Supreme Court’s ruling on unsheltered homelessness not certain for Wichita

The Court decided Friday that cities can enforce bans on homeless people sleeping outside and encampments, even if no shelter space is available. One statewide official called the ruling ‘profoundly disappointing.’

by Stefania Lugli/The Journal

The local implications aren’t yet apparent when it comes to a U.S. Supreme Court decision Friday giving cities the purview to enforce bans on encampments and fine or jail homeless people for sleeping outside – even when shelter beds are unavailable.

The 6-3 decision is being criticized by advocates, who argue that the law criminalizes homelessness and will only worsen the nationwide crisis. The ruling says that penalizing people for sleeping outside is not considered “cruel and unusual punishment.”

However, the ruling doesn’t automatically invalidate ordinances nationwide. It allows cities the option to sweep a camp without it being a civil rights violation. 

In Wichita, a city ordinance already makes it unlawful and a public nuisance for people to camp on public property or in public right-of-way without a permit. But the section contains an exception for homeless individuals who don’t have access to “appropriate shelters.”

In other cities, such as Topeka, laws against public camping don’t include similar exceptions, but have been enforced that way because of a 2019 ruling in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Council Member Maggie Ballard says she believes the court’s ruling should not affect city ordinance, which restricts local law enforcement from disbanding encampments unless a homeless person has a shelter bed to go to. 

“When I ran for council, one of the reasons was to change the city’s approach to homelessness from one of criminalizing poverty and making a shift to humanizing our approach,” she says. “This ruling shouldn’t impact our strategies because enforcing the camping ordinance is our last option, not the first.”

Sally Stang, the director of the city’s housing department and board chair of the Coalition to End Homelessness, says the city needs time to learn more about the ruling before confirming any potential changes to local law.

“Until we have time to fully evaluate the ruling and its ramifications, I am not in a position to make a comment at this time,” she wrote in an email.

Advocates and experts on homelessness have panned the court’s ruling. Nationwide organizations such as the National Homelessness Law Center say the decision is “inhumane” and will make it harder for people to become stably housed. Their statement demands a $300 billion investment for rental assistance, eviction prevention and public housing in return for penalizing people for sleeping outside.

Christy McMurphy, the executive director of the Kansas Statewide Homeless Coalition, agrees that housing and human services will need more backing than ever to prevent homelessness from worsening in Kansas.

“The Supreme Court’s ruling is profoundly disappointing and won’t solve homelessness. Housing and support services solve homelessness,” she says. “It is our hope for Kansas elected officials, in all levels of government, to have the political will to work with us as we implement a proven solution to homelessness.”

Sedgwick County Commissioner Ryan Baty, who also sits on the Wichita’s Homelessness Task Force, says the court decisions provides “needed clarity” for municipalities wrestling with the issue of homelessness and enforcement options.

“I’ve said, frequently, that the only way to truly impact homelessness is to deal with the root causes that are influencing these outcomes,” he says. “I will never be for an approach that criminalizes the reality of being unhoused and I will continue to focus our efforts on building a system of services that can effectively and permanently return people to stable and secure housing.”

Representatives of the Wichita Police Department and its Homeless Outreach Team could not be reached for comment prior to publication.

Stefania Lugli is a reporter for The Journal, published by the Kansas Leadership Center. She focuses on covering issues related to homelessness in Wichita and across Kansas. Her stories are shared widely through the Wichita Journalism Collaborative. She can be reached via email

This article was republished here with the permission of: KLC Journal