Supreme Court to Rule on Criminalization of Homelessness: A Primer on Grants Pass v. Johnson

Here’s what you need to know about the Supreme Court’s oral argument in Grants Pass v. Johnson on April 22.

What is this case about?

Grants Pass v. Johnson is the most important case in decades addressing the rights of people experiencing homelessness. The Supreme Court will decide whether the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment,” protects people who are facing homelessness from being punished under laws that prohibit camping in public areas.

How did the case originate?

The city of Grants Pass, Oregon enacted several laws that penalize people for sleeping or camping in public areas like parks. At the time, the city council president said the goal was “to make it uncomfortable enough for them [people experiencing homelessness] in our city so they will want to move on down the road.” People who sleep in public in violation of these laws can be fined, banned for repeat violations, and jailed for trespassing if they violate the ban. Other cities have passed similar laws.

Who filed a lawsuit, and why?

Residents of the city who were experiencing homelessness, and who could therefore be fined or arrested under the laws, filed a class action lawsuit against the city. Because there weren’t enough shelters in the city, the plaintiffs simply didn’t have anywhere else to go. They argued that the laws violate the Eighth Amendment because they punish people for the status of being homeless — and not because of anything they voluntarily did.

How did the lower courts rule?

The lower courts sided with the plaintiffs. Because the city did not have adequate shelters for people facing homelessness, one court explained that the “anti-camping ordinances prohibit plaintiffs from engaging in activity they cannot avoid,” and that this was not permissible under the Eighth Amendment. The city appealed the case to the Supreme Court.

Now that it’s at the Supreme Court, what is the city of Grants Pass arguing?

In short, the city is arguing that the Eighth Amendment only prohibits certain punishments from being inflicted, and it doesn’t apply to what behaviors the government can and can’t prohibit. Here, they argue that in our legal system, there is nothing unusual about fines and short jail terms.

What are the plaintiffs arguing in response?

The plaintiffs argue that the lower courts were correct: The city is effectively punishing people for the status of being homeless. Because experiencing homelessness is involuntary and blameless, penalizing people for it with fines and short jail terms is inherently cruel and unusual (even if fines and short jail terms may be common punishments elsewhere). 

What is The Leadership Conference’s take on the case?

We joined an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs. The brief argues that punishing people for sleeping in public does not address the root causes of homelessness, which is a product not of individual behavior but rather of a severe shortage of affordable homes. Instead of addressing this root cause, the penalties make it even harder for people to obtain shelter — with the impact falling heavily on people of color, people with disabilities, and domestic violence survivors.

What happens if the Supreme Court sides with the city?

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Grants Pass, we are deeply concerned that other cities will ramp up their laws to punish people who sleep outside because they have nowhere else to go. In the absence of an adequate supply of affordable homes, a ruling in favor of the city would ultimately increase homelessness, not reduce it.

What happens if the Supreme Court sides with the plaintiffs?  

If the Supreme Court agrees that punishing involuntary homelessness is prohibited under the Eighth Amendment, our hope is that cities will be forced to take better, more sustainable steps to reduce homelessness. As the National Low Income Housing Coalition explains, the best way to do this is by increasing access to affordable housing and voluntary supportive services, including case management, health care, and behavioral health services.