Supreme Court hearing case on regulating homeless encampments. How it affects California

The Supreme Court will hear arguments on Monday over whether local governments trying to fine or arrest unhoused people for camping in public spaces when they have nowhere else to go is cruel and unusual punishment.

It is the most important Supreme Court case about homelessness in 40 years, advocates say, and has the potential to affect much broader policy.

A decision siding with the small mountain community at its center could let officials penalize unhoused people for sleeping with as little as a blanket outside.

>>Read about what Supreme Court justices said at Monday’s oral arguments here<<

California officials have a strong interest in the case as the state grapples with some of the highest rates of homelessness and housing costs in the United States. Some hope that the court allows cities to ban homeless encampments while others hope it clarifies how they can regulate them.

Many California Democrats, including Gov. Gavin Newsom, and Republicans want a lot of the same thing: to be able to restrict and regulate homeless encampments. But many advocates and progressive lawmakers say that would inevitably result in more arrests if people have no other housing options.

“This idea that California has a homelessness crisis because they can’t throw people in jail is just not true. California has a homelessness crisis because housing is too expensive,” Jesse Rabinowitz of the National Homelessness Law Center said in an interview on Friday.

Penalizing unhoused people is “a way for elected officials to push the blame on to people living in poverty instead of taking accountability for the fact that they haven’t done what is needed to address the homelessness crisis,” he said.

The number of people experiencing homelessness in the U.S. rose a record 12% from 2022 to 2023, with estimates exceeding 653,000 people at that point in time, according to the U.S. Housing and Urban Development’s most recent annual report. In California, more than 180,000 people were experiencing homelessness at that given point.

Lawmakers across the political spectrum, including Newsom, say lower courts have hindered officials’ ability to regulate encampments at all, causing health and safety issues for the public and people in them. These legislators are taking neither side in City of Grants Pass v. Johnson, referred to as “Grants Pass,” rather hoping for a narrow interpretation of appellate rulings on homeless encampments that drive the case.

By broadly interpreting what constitutes punishing homelessness and what is considered involuntary, they say, judges have prevented officials from evicting encampments even when shelter beds were available.

“The impediments under Grants Pass and the courts have imposed, it’s a real issue,” Newsom said in a press conference on Thursday. “It’s not us abdicating, however, responsibility.”

Housing advocates say penalizing people who can’t afford housing would increase homelessness, perpetuate poverty and criminalize a status of homelessness that people already don’t want to have. Officials should focus more on bolstering affordable housing and addressing poverty, which disproportionately affects Black, Latino and Indigenous communities, they said.

The issue with a narrower ruling that allows some of these restrictions on camping is that officials could perpetually move unhoused people from sidewalk to sidewalk or to shelters that might be worse than the tents or cars they are in, said Veronica Lewis, the director of the Homeless Outreach Program Integrated Care System in Los Angeles.

In an interview on Friday, Lewis said, “There’s no recognition of the realities and the root causes of why people are in these situations.”

“You take away a person’s choice,” Lewis added. “Or literally people have to choose with being uncomfortable or feeling unsafe in a shelter setting or eventually, unfortunately, feeling unsafe and having to deal with being institutionalized in jail, which is ultimately going to be the consequence if they don’t move.”

Andrea McChristian of the Southern Poverty Law Center speaks about homelessness issues alongside housing advocates and progressive members of Congress in front of the Supreme Court on April 19, 2024. The Supreme Court is considering City of Grants Pass v. Johnson which questions if fining or arresting involuntarily homeless people for camping in public spaces violates Eighth Amendment protections against cruel or unusual punishment.

What is the Supreme Court homelessness case?

The question at the center of City of Grants Pass v. Johnson is whether penalizing people for camping in public areas — from a parked car to a tent at the park or a blanket on the sidewalk — when they have nowhere else to go violates the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Eighth Amendment prohibits “cruel and unusual punishments.”

The Supreme Court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, is expected to release a decision by the end of June.

The case originated from a southwest Oregon town of about 40,000 people, Grants Pass, which over a decade ago attempted to ban unhoused people from camping in public spaces. The city council instituted civil citations for people sleeping outside — even those using as little as a blanket, pillow or cardboard box — that could eventually lead to criminal charges.

Grants Pass has one overnight shelter for adults with 138 beds. But the Gospel Rescue Mission’s Christian focus and tight restrictions make it unpalatable or inaccessible to many. There are about 600 people experiencing homelessness in Grants Pass and the town has is a 1% vacancy rate, which has led judges to determine there is no adequate shelter for unhoused people there.

In 2018, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Western states, decided in Martin v. City of Boise that the Eighth Amendment prohibited local governments from criminalizing “sitting, sleeping, or lying outside on public property for homeless individuals who cannot obtain shelter.”

Lawyers representing unhoused residents sued Grants Pass over the ordinances, saying it effectively pushed them out of town.

A federal judge in an Oregon court ruled in 2020: “Because Grants Pass lacks adequate shelter for its homeless population, its practice of punishing people who have no access to shelter for the act of sleeping or resting outside while having a blanket or other bedding to stay warm and dry constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment.”

In 2022, the Ninth Circuit agreed: Grants Pass could not enforce its anti-camping ordinances. Civil fines that are deeply intertwined with criminal punishments, like the ones in Grants Pass, were blocked in Western states in its jurisdiction, including California.

What do California lawmakers want the Supreme Court to do?

Since then, some judges have blocked cities from evicting encampments unless there are enough shelter beds for its entire homeless population. Among other issues, lawmakers have said the Ninth Circuit rulings were confusing and did not properly distinguish what is voluntary versus involuntary homelessness.

Newsom’s lawyers urged the Supreme Court in a brief toward a narrow interpretation of Martin v. Boise. Local officials should be allowed to restrict the location of encampments and clear them if there is a health or safety threat to the public or people in them, Newsom and other lawmakers argue, while ensuring there are shelter options.

In a press conference on funding to address encampments on Thursday, Newsom described touring an encampment that “felt like a scene out of one of Raiders of Lost Ark” with the amount of rats running around, with needles and feces strewn everywhere.

“No compassion, no compassion whatsoever, leaving people in those conditions when we had an alternative,” Newsom said. “But the judge was saying, ‘You can’t use that alternative because of this court ruling.’”

Others want Martin v. Boise overturned, including Sacramento County District Attorney Thien Ho. Ho, who is suing the city of Sacramento over its handling of homelessness, argued in a brief submitted to the Supreme Court that the decision failed to chart course for determining if an individual is involuntarily homeless.

Republican lawmakers — including Reps. Kevin Kiley, R-Roseville, Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, and Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale — have said courts shouldn’t decide how communities regulate encampments.

In a brief submitted to the Supreme Court, a lawyer for them and other GOP congressmen urged the Supreme Court to overturn Martin v. Boise “to ensure local municipalities are full able to combat the crime that inevitably results from unrestricted homeless encampments.”

“We are urging the Supreme Court to enable local jurisdictions to adopt common sense policies to limit encampments in public spaces,” Kiley said in a statement on Thursday. “Cities need to be able to act to protect public health and safety, while at the same time connecting those in need with services.”

Meanwhile advocates and progressive lawmakers — including Reps. Ro Khanna, D-Fremont, Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, and Linda Sanchez, D-Norwalk — say restricting camping when there are no or limited shelter options is inhumane and costly.

Said Rabinowitz of the National Homelessness Law Center, which submitted a brief on behalf of those lawmakers, “It’s time to not only shift away from things that harm people, like jails and handcuffs and fines, and actually fund proven solutions to homelessness, like housing and services.”