How the Supreme Court Could Impact Homelessness

The Supreme Court will soon be hearing the case of City of Grants Pass, Oregon v. Johnson, a rare instance of the Court grappling with the issue of homelessness. This is the most significant Supreme Court case about homelessness in decades. The immediate outcome is uncertain, but it will almost certainly impact how people think about homelessness – and how communities will respond.

About the Case

The narrow issue in the case is whether a local government can issue tickets, fines, arrests, or otherwise punish people for “camping” outside in public spaces – even when adequate indoor shelter and housing spaces aren’t available in that community for everyone who needs them.

But it’s been proven that these measures (tickets, fines, etc.) actually make it harder for people to get a roof over their head after they’ve been homeless. It also costs taxpayers more to fund these punitive approaches, as opposed to providing them with housing and services instead.

The results of this Supreme Court case could vary: from a confirmation of positive approaches to ending homelessness, to a ruling that would make homelessness harder to escape by imposing arrest records and exacerbating conflicts instead of adopting solutions that work. We hope that the Court will decide to support the approaches that we know work, and there are organizations all across the country working to help make this happen.

National-Level Work

The Alliance joined with Funders Together to End Homelessness and Enterprise Community Partners to submit a “friend of the court” brief, clarifying that we know the right approaches to resolve homelessness, and that tickets, fines and arrests are not what improves homelessness.

This brief, from three organizations that have expended substantial energy to make resources available to solve this problem, summarizes the basic constitutional argument in favor of affirming the lower court’s decision against the criminalization practices of Grants Pass. It describes the work communities around the country have done to improve homelessness, using approaches that focus on getting people quickly into housing and providing the services they need to stay stably housed. It describes the research that backs it up that approach. It finishes with research showing that criminalization is ineffective in reducing homelessness.

A team of volunteer lawyers from the prestigious firm of Covington and Burling represented the three organizations, and did a magnificent job of crafting the brief to maximize its impact on the Court. Many thanks to them!

What Comes Next

Advocates are holding rallies across the country – including in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. – on April 22, the day of the oral arguments.

National partners will continue this work once the Court issues a decision: to both encourage and help communities adopt effective practices and approaches, and help enact federal and state policies that fund, support, and incentivize those approaches and practices.

Whatever the Court decides, it seems certain that communities around the country will be reexamining their approaches in light of increasing homelessness nationwide. The Alliance will do everything in our power to ensure that people understand what it takes to have a real positive impact on the problem; to help communities implement those solutions; and to help policymakers support this work.