The Supreme Court Rules on Homelessness: What it All Means

This publication is part one of a series of blog posts dedicated to outline the impacts and consequences of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in the case of City of Grants Pass, OR, v Johnson. Read part two and three.
Last week, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Grants Pass v. Johnson, which makes it easier for communities nationwide to fine, ticket or arrest people living unsheltered, even when there is no adequate shelter available.

Specifically, the Supreme Court determined that the “cruel and unusual punishment” clause of the Eighth Amendment does not prohibit the City of Grants Pass from enforcing criminal punishments against people who are homeless for camping outside in the city.

As the Court pointed out, there may be other reasons beyond the scope of this case that what Grants Pass was doing to homeless people was unconstitutional or otherwise illegal. These could include violations of the Fourth Amendment (illegal search and seizure), the Fourteenth Amendment (equal protections under law), as well as compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. But it’s a significant case in that the cruel and unusual punishment clause has been a tool used by legal advocates to prevent the criminalization of homelessness in other places. So, while the Court didn’t specifically overrule other anti-criminalization cases like the Ninth Circuit’s ruling in the case of Martin v. Boise, it undermines them.

Just Because You Can, Doesn’t Mean You Should

It’s important to note that this case may prevent certain lawsuits, but it doesn’t force communities to take any specific actions or to actively engage in criminal punishment of unsheltered people. Instead, it makes it easier for communities to do exactly that if they choose.

Elected officials who insist on going down that path will quickly learn that it won’t change the realities of homelessness. Criminal penalties such as fines, tickets, and arrests make homelessness worse, and cost communities a lot of money that should otherwise be spent on housing, supportive services, and street outreach. With record numbers of people entering into homelessness systems for the first time (more than 18,000 people per week in 2023, according to new U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development [HUD] System Performance Measure data) we must remind leaders that what solves homelessness is housing, together with supportive services needed to help people stabilize in housing. And these are investments that benefit the entire community, not just folks who are experiencing homelessness.

Of concern in the majority opinion in this case are the statements that basically repeat the “homeless by choice” contention. These comments were based on gratuitous statements in amicus briefs in the case, written by people who are looking to cast blame on people other than themselves. The only choice involved in homelessness is the choice by alleged leaders to ignore the housing needs of people with the lowest incomes.

We know what to do to end homelessness. We still have homelessness because we haven’t done those things. This Supreme Court has made clear that we shouldn’t look to them for help. We intend to succeed without them.

What You Can Do

This is a critical time to build our network of engaged advocates who are ready to push back on harmful proposals to ticket, fine, or arrest unsheltered people. While this Supreme Court case has dominated headlines the past few days, the truth is that there is a constant and growing number of policy threats against people experiencing homelessness: in the form of local ordinances, ballot measures, and state laws.

To protect our unhoused neighbors, preserve support for best practices, and ultimately fend off these terrible policies, we need all of our advocates at the table, encouraging their elected officials to do the right thing.

In the coming weeks, the Alliance will have more resources to share in this effort. But as a start, we strongly urge all readers to sign up for advocacy alerts so that you can join us in fighting for what’s right.

On behalf of the Alliance, I thank you for your passion, your commitment, and your advocacy.