Supreme Court to Determine Legality of Punishing Homeless for Sleeping Outside Without Shelter

Grants Pass, Oregon – The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case that will determine whether local governments can penalize homeless individuals for sleeping or camping in public when shelter beds are not available. This raises the question of whether such laws violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

The case stems from a complaint filed by three homeless individuals in Grants Pass, an Oregon city with a higher number of homeless people than available shelter beds. The city has ordinances that prohibit individuals from sleeping on the streets or in parks if they use a blanket or cardboard box for protection from the weather. However, a district court ruled that the city is unable to enforce this law.

In late April, the Supreme Court is expected to hear oral arguments on this pressing matter. Elected officials, including California Governor Gavin Newsom, have urged the Supreme Court to side with Grants Pass and address the issue at hand.

Governor Newsom stressed the importance of allowing state and local governments to implement practical approaches in addressing homelessness, as current court restrictions hinder their ability to effectively clean streets and provide assistance to unhoused individuals living in deplorable conditions. Newsom’s arguments were presented in an amicus brief to the Supreme Court.

The lead counsel for the homeless respondents in the case, Ed Johnson, emphasized that the case is not about a city’s authority to regulate or prohibit encampments, as that has always been permissible. Instead, the core issue is whether cities can punish homeless individuals simply for existing without access to shelter.

This case comes at a time when advocates, such as Jesse Rabinowitz from the National Homelessness Law Center (NHLC), observe a nationwide movement towards criminalizing homelessness. NHLC’s analysis of 187 city laws from 2006 to 2019 reveals a significant increase in legislation targeting visible homelessness, such as panhandling and sleeping in public. Rabinowitz finds it disheartening that cities resort to arresting people as a means to end homelessness.

The number of unsheltered homeless individuals in the United States reached an all-time high in 2023, while efforts to criminalize homelessness continue to escalate. Despite this alarming trend, Maryland stands out as an exception, having significantly reduced homelessness over the past 14 years, according to data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the 2021 and 2022 surveys led to a sharp drop in unsheltered homelessness, attributed to federal eviction moratoriums and other factors. However, the number of unsheltered homeless people has increased once again, peaking in 2023.

Although the Supreme Court’s decision in the Grants Pass case carries significant implications, Rabinowitz hopes that they will uphold the lower court’s precedent and prioritize the wellbeing of homeless individuals. He believes that criminalizing homelessness only prolongs the issue, and that providing the necessary housing is essential for individuals to thrive.