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Can cities can manage homeless populations? Supreme Court to decide

As homeless populations surge to over 580,000 nationally, with high concentrations in the western states, the rules for assisting our most vulnerable populations have become very tenuous. A recent announcement by the Supreme Court is likely to bring some clarity to the tools local governments use in managing homeless populations.

On January 12, 2024 the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Johnson v. City of Grants Pass, addressing what tools local governments can use in dissuading homeless populations from camping on public property. The case was originally brought as Blake v. City of Grants Pass in the ninth circuit court, but after the original plaintiff’s death, two new plaintiffs continued the appeal under Johnson.


The upcoming Supreme Court case contests the opinion from the ninth circuit court that civil citations for public encampments and sleeping are considered ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ under the eighth amendment.[1] The application of the eighth amendment’s ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ clause is likely to be a pivotal issue in the upcoming case.


The case began when the City of Grants Pass enforced city ordinances that prevented camping and sleeping in public parks, by issuing civil citations and fines to violators. The plaintiffs in the case contested the citations received under these ordinances as ‘cruel and unusual punishment,’ claiming that no other option for sleeping existed for them.


Stretching the use of the ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ clause under the eighth amendment, the ninth circuit court of appeals complicated and limited the options available to municipalities in addressing the homelessness crisis in their region. The ninth circuit court decided a similar case, Martin v. Boise, in 2018. Martin v. Boise severely limiting the ability of cities in enforcing anti-camping ordinances and tying the hands of local residents, businesses, and law enforcement from discouraging encampments. Johnson v. City of Grants Pass extends the reach of Martin v. Boise.


Martin v. Boise prohibits cities from criminally citing individuals for camping on public property, if there is no shelter available to them. The court found that a criminal citation for sleeping in public areas is a “cruel and unusual punishment.”[2] The decision removed a tool available to local governments attempting to curb public encampments and sets the ninth circuit region at odds with precedence from the rest of the country. The City of Boise eventually settled with the plaintiffs in 2021, designating $1.3 million for homeless shelters and repaying $435,000 for the plaintiffs’ attorney fees, and $5,000 in damages to plaintiffs.


In an additional opinion, regarding the rehearing of Martin v. Boise by the ninth circuit court, Judge M. Smith, along with six other judges, dissents stating, “The panel’s reasoning will soon prevent local governments from enforcing a host of other public health and safety laws, such as those prohibiting public defecation and urination. Perhaps most unfortunately, the panel’s opinion shackles the hands of public officials trying to redress the serious societal concern of homelessness.”[3]


The recent announcement of the upcoming Supreme Court hearing in Johnson v. City of Grants Pass has generated national interest. Democratic and Republican interests are teaming up in support of Grants Pass, hoping for clarity and options for municipalities to manage the growing homeless encampments.


Governor Gavin Newsom of California said, “California has invested billions to address homelessness, but rulings from the bench have tied the hands of state and local governments to address this issue. The supreme court can now correct course and end the costly delays from lawsuits that have plagued our efforts to clear encampments and deliver services to those in need.”


An Oregon law passed in 2021, would prevent any ruling from the Supreme Court from affecting practices in the state of Oregon. However, the other ninth circuit states will benefit from clarity on how to legally address homelessness and help those in need. The dissenting opinion in Johnson v. City of Grants Pass reads, “Further, it is hard to deny that Martin has “generate[d] dire practical consequences for the hundreds of local governments within our jurisdiction, and for the millions of people that reside therein.”


These ‘dire consequences’ need to be addressed immediately for the nation to move forward in addressing housing. Research proves that addressing the housing shortage and cost increases is the best way to remediate homelessness. However, tying the hands of municipalities in managing homeless residents is only intensifying the consequences of homelessness. The anticipated ruling from the Supreme Court will hopefully give this clarity to local governments.

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