On April 22, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in what could be the most consequential ruling regarding homelessness in decades, City of Grants Pass v. Johnson. The central question before the court is whether Grant Pass’s laws prohibiting encampments in public spaces, which have led to insurmountable fines and arrests of homeless people, violate the 8th Amendment. The 8th Amendment prohibits the infliction of “cruel and unusual punishments” in proportion to the seriousness of the offense – sleeping outside where no alternative shelter exists. Lower courts have ruled that if there is not enough shelter space available, it is a violation of the 8th Amendment to criminalize the homeless, rendering Grant Pass’s local laws unenforceable. The SCOTUS ruling could potentially either strip the ability of local governments or embolden them to clear encampments.

Grant Pass’s argument hinged on the fact that it was not in violation of the 8th Amendment and that it is not compassionate to allow people to sleep on the streets. The thoughts heard from the nine judges reflected their ideological stances. More conservative members of the court, including Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, questioned why courts should be dictating what should be a local government officials’ decision. Liberal justices on the court lambasted the Grant Pass lawyer for trying to criminalize sleeping, which is a necessity, when the homeless individuals have nowhere else to go.

Gov. Newsom has filed amicus briefs calling for clarity from the court and emphasized that California cities need the ability to clear encampments. Two major cities, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, have also commented on the issue, with LA saying it “does not support efforts to criminalize people who are experiencing involuntary homelessness. However, the city does have a paramount interest in its ability to protect public health and safety.” In contrast, San Francisco has said the court cannot ban camping everywhere, or it will hurt individuals and lead more unhoused people to San Francisco, where they will not face severe punishment.

The Court is expected to issue a decision in June or July.

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About the Author

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Colleen Murphy is a Principal with LeSar Development Consultants’ Homelessness Solutions Team, where she designs and implements homelessness-related programs emphasizing unsheltered/encampment strategies and the intersection of homelessness and healthcare. She holds a bachelor’s degree in International Affairs from James Madison University and a postgraduate diploma in Epidemiology from the University of London, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Biography | Email

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