Supreme Court appears poised to support Oregon city’s measures against public sleeping

On Monday, April 22, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments for the case City of Grants Pass v. Johnson, marking one of the most significant cases on the issue of homelessness in years. This case comes amidst a record number of 650,000 people in 2023 reported as experiencing homelessness in the United States, a 12% increase from the previous year, highlighting the urgent need for reform and solutions to this crisis. The Supreme Court has elected to consider the moral question of “whether or not cities can punish people for sleeping outside when shelter space is lacking.”  

The City of Grants Pass v. Johnson case initially centered on Grants Pass, OR, a small city with a population of under 40,000, where individuals were fined $295 for sleeping outside despite rising living costs from 2013 to 2018. The plaintiff, Johnson, involuntarily homeless, was fined for sleeping in her van and camping in a public park. In response, the Oregon Law Center filed a suit in 2020, arguing that “unhoused people cannot be penalized for sleeping outside on public property without adequate alternatives.” The Medford Federal District Court agreed, citing violations of the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause and Excessive Fines Clause due to the absence of low-barrier shelters or alternative accommodations.

As this case awaits the Supreme Court’s decision, justices have made notable comments. Justice Sotomayor remarked, “You don’t arrest people who are sleeping on the beach,” while Justice Kagan acknowledged, “sleeping is a biological necessity,” underscoring that basic human needs should not be criminalized. Homelessness, rooted in systemic issues such as capitalism, is fundamentally a human problem. However, conservative judges have complicated matters by framing homelessness, the right to rest, shelter, and opportunity in overly complex ways. Failing to address homelessness beyond fines and blame risks further harm to those already struggling involuntarily.

Beyond Oregon, California, with the highest homelessness rate, has also tackled this crisis. In Sacramento in 2022, voters passed the Emergency Shelter and Enforcement Act, prohibiting camping on public property with a misdemeanor fine for noncompliance, contingent on available shelter accommodations. San Diego enacted the Unsafe Camping Ordinance with similar provisions. However, enforcement of these laws hinges on the availability of housing options. The prevailing view among lawmakers is the urgent need for safe accommodations for all.

As the Supreme Court deliberates, it is imperative to recognize that criminalizing human needs is not a viable solution. Addressing homelessness requires comprehensive, compassionate approaches that prioritize shelter, support, and dignity for all individuals.

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