Supreme Court set to rule on criminalizing homelessness


Date published: Tue, 14 May 24

The Supreme Court is set to decide on a decision for Johnson vs. Grants Pass on June 30, 2024. The case surrounds the rights of unhoused people. Johnson v. Grants Pass is a court case that was filed originally in 2018. The original case argued that it is cruel and unusual punishment to arrest or ticket people for sleeping outside “when they have no other safe place to go.” 

In Grants Pass, Oregon, the city started ticketing people who were sleeping in public, regardless of whether a person had a safe, accessible place to go to. Grants Pass has a population of around 40,000, and around 600 of the population are unhoused. The sole nonprofit in the city can house only up to 100 beds. The ordinance that allowed the ticketing of people sleeping in public additionally barred camping on public property, and prohibited unhoused people from using blankets, pillows, and cardboard boxes while sleeping within city limits. Grants Pass, situated in southern Oregon, leans towards a conservative policy. News Nation reports that many taxpayers are unsupportive of funding a public shelter or conditions “conducive to drawing unhoused people.” 

As a result of this policy, unhoused individuals have sued the city, saying that the criminalization of homelessness is a form of cruel and unusual punishment, violating the Eighth Amendment. They also argued that the ordinance violates the Excessive Fines Clause because the city of Grants Pass has no low-barrier shelters.

More than 600,000 people in the United States experience homelessness on any given night. About half of these people sleep outside. As inflation rises and wages stagnate, households are increasingly struggling to financially make ends meet. When cities fine unhoused individuals for sleeping on the street, they are criminalizing homelessness. This exacerbates a system of oppressive structures and failed housing policies. Rather than fining those who simply don’t have the money to pay the fines, cities need to invest in housing policies, rehabilitation for unhoused individuals, and policies that will adequately address the systemic failures of the United States that cause homelessness in the first place. 

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Johnson, cities will be forced to contend with the true solution of homelessness, which is providing housing. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of the city of Grants Pass, states and cities will have the authority to punish those who sleep outside, even when those people don’t have any safe option. A website made for informing the public about the case says, “Studies and experience show that criminalizing homelessness is a waste of taxpayer money and actually makes it harder to connect people with housing. Such a ruling would be a clear sign that SCOTUS, like the politicians of both parties, would rather make homelessness invisible instead of ensuring people have safe, dignified housing.” Check out the website here for more information. 

The website contains several resources to help while we wait for a decision from the Supreme Court. The steps include: using their social media toolkit to raise awareness and taking the steps in the advocacy toolkit.