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The Supreme Court Agrees to Rule on Criminalizing Homelessness

By A.J. Firstman | Last updated on

The Supreme Court recently agreed to rule on whether cities can punish homeless people for sleeping on public land. Since sleeping on public land is one of the main things homeless people do, many have criticized the case and the possible ruling as a way to criminalize homelessness itself.

The case in question originates from Grants Pass, Oregon, a city nestled along the Rogue River in the southwestern corner of the state. Though it is a small city with a population just shy of 40,000, Grants Pass has been grappling with the same questions about how to manage its homeless population that have dogged larger cities like Los Angeles, California and Boise, Idaho. And, like those two cities in particular, it has chosen to address the issue by creating ordinances designed specifically to make life even harder for the people who have taken up residence in some of their public spaces.

Grants Pass’ anti-homeless ordinances seem fairly innocuous at first blush. They don’t imprison, fine, or chase homeless people out of town, they just hand out civil citations for violations against their laws banning sleeping or camping on public sidewalks, streets, and alleyways. Granted, receiving two citations results in a 30-day ban from the city’s parks – IE, the main places where homeless people camp out – but that isn’t so bad, right?

It's Pretty Bad, Actually

There are a few major, glaring problems with the approach Grants Pass took to quietly push the homeless out of their city.

The first problem is one of morality: it is generally frowned upon to intentionally increase the suffering of people already in difficult circumstances.

The second problem is a practical one: there are no public homeless shelters in Grants Pass, and the two privately operated housing programs do not have the resources to shelter all the homeless in the city.

The third is why we’re here today: the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had already ruled in a separate case that any punishment for public camping amounts to cruel and unusual punishment if the person in question had no access to alternative shelter.

Grants Pass was effectively punishing people for camping or sleeping in public spaces. The city also lacked sufficient shelter to accommodate everyone who needed it. In other words, the ordinances Grants Pass put in place directly contradicted the ruling of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Challenges to Grants Pass’ ordinances made their way to a federal district court, which followed the Ninth Circuit’s rulings holding that camping on public property was protected and that the Eight Amendment prohibits civil enforcement of city ordinances. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the ruling.

You Shall Not (Grants) Pass

Grants Pass was ordered to make drastic changes to their anti-homeless ordinances. They were forbidden from enforcing the ordinances at night, and could only enforce them during the day if they gave a full 24 hours’ notice to the "offenders" in question – effectively rendering the ordinances useless and unenforceable. As you might imagine, Grants Pass wasn’t happy.  

The city went to the Supreme Court with their case, arguing that the Ninth Circuit’s ruling was not consistent with the California Supreme Court and the Eleventh Circuit in nixing laws aimed at cracking down on public camping. Homelessness has become a humanitarian crisis in the western U.S., they claimed, and places like Grants Pass and larger, more important cities are being denied the legal tools to address the problem.

The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. Its ruling is expected within the year.

Consequences and Conclusions

You’d have a hard time finding someone who claims to know the solution for homelessness. Though the official number of people living on the street has fallen slightly since its most recent high during the height of the Great Recession, reports still indicate that there are about 580,000 people experiencing homelessness in the country at any given time. Though that figure only equates to about 18 in 10,000 people (or 0.18%), they aren’t spread evenly across the country. Some cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boise, and other places that provide resources for homeless people have attracted so many that some concerned citizens – and partisan commentators – to declare states of semi-emergency, albeit for different reasons.

Homelessness is not an easy problem to solve, and may require many more resources than any city is willing or able to provide. Putting homeless people in jail obviously isn’t the answer – unless they commit actual crimes, obviously – but the push to do so speaks to the level of frustration and helplessness felt by the citizens of the cities that pass such ordinances.

It’s hard to say how the Supreme Court will rule in this case. Only one thing is certain: the solution to homelessness is not behind bars

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