How the Supreme Court’s case on homeless encampments could impact CA


The Supreme Court will debate Monday whether local governments try to fine or arrest unhoused people for camping in public spaces when they have nowhere else to go. is cruel or unusual.

It is the most important Supreme Court case on homelessness in four decades, advocates say, and has the potential to influence much broader policy.

A decision that sides with the small central mountain community could see officials across the country punish unhoused people for sleeping with just a blanket outside.

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California officials are taking a keen interest in the case as the state struggles with some of the highest rates of homelessness and housing costs in the United States. Some hope the court will allow cities to ban homeless encampments, while others hope it will clarify how they can regulate them.

Many California Democrats, including Gov. Gavin Newsom, and Republicans want largely the same thing: to be able to limit and regulate homeless encampments. But many advocates and progressive lawmakers say this would inevitably lead to more arrests if people have no other housing options.

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

Punishing people who are not housed is “a way for elected officials to shift blame to people living in poverty, rather than taking responsibility for their failure to do what is necessary to address the homelessness crisis,” he said.

The number of people experiencing homelessness in the U.S. increased by a record 12% between 2022 and 2023, with estimates of more than 653,000 people at that time, according to the most recent annual report from U.S. Housing and Urban Development. More than 180,000 people were homeless in California at the time.

Lawmakers from across the political spectrum, including Newsom, say lower courts have hampered officials’ ability to regulate camps in the first place, creating health and safety concerns for the public and people who live there. These lawmakers are not taking either side in the City of Grants Pass v. Johnson case, also known as “Grants Pass,” and are rather hoping for a narrow interpretation of the appellate rulings on homeless encampments driving the case.

By giving a broad interpretation of what constitutes sanctioning homelessness and what is considered involuntary, they say judges have prevented officials from clearing camps even when shelter beds were available.

“The barriers imposed under Grants Pass and the courts are a real problem,” Newsom said at a news conference Thursday. “However, we are not abdicating our 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 strengthening affordable housing and addressing poverty, which disproportionately affects Black, Latino and Indigenous communities, they said.

The problem with a narrower ruling that allows some restrictions on camping is that officials can continually move unhoused people from sidewalk to sidewalk or into shelters that may be worse than the tents or cars they are in, Veronica said Lewis, the director of Homeless Outreach. Integrated Care System program, which is located in Los Angeles.

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

“You’re taking away someone’s choice,” Lewis added. “Or literally, people have to choose whether they feel uncomfortable or unsafe in a shelter environment, or ultimately, unfortunately, feel unsafe and face a prison admission, which will ultimately be the consequence if they don’t move.”

Andrea McChristian of the Southern Poverty Law Center joins housing advocates and progressive members of Congress to speak before the Supreme Court on April 19, 2024, on homelessness issues. The Supreme Court considers City of Grants Pass v. Johnson, which raises questions about whether to fine or arrest involuntary homeless people who camp in public areas violate the Eighth Amendment’s protections against cruel or unusual punishment. Gillian Brasil [email protected]

What is the Supreme Court homelessness case?

The question at the heart of City of Grants Pass v. Johnson is whether punishing people for camping in public spaces — from a parked car to a tent in the park or a blanket on the sidewalk — when they have nowhere else to go violates the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Eighth Amendment prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment.”

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

The case stemmed from a southwestern Oregon town of about 40,000 residents, Grants Pass, that tried to ban unhoused people from camping in public areas more than a decade ago. The city government has filed civil citations for people sleeping outdoors – even those using just a blanket, pillow or cardboard box – which could eventually lead to criminal prosecution.

Grants Pass has one adult overnight accommodation with 138 beds. But the Gospel Rescue Mission’s Christian focus and severe restrictions make it unpalatable or inaccessible to many. TIn Grants Pass, 600 people are homeless and the city has a 1% vacancy rate, leading judges to rule that there is no adequate shelter there for unhoused people.

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

Attorneys representing unhoused residents sued Grants Pass over the ordinances, claiming it effectively pushed them out of the city.

A federal judge in an Oregon court ruled in 2020: “Because Grants Pass does not provide adequate shelter for the homeless population, the practice of punishing people without access to shelter for sleeping or resting outdoors while wearing a blanket or other having bedding to keep warm and dry is cruel and unusual punishment that violates the Eighth Amendment.”

In 2022, the Ninth Circuit agreed: Grants Pass could not enforce its anti-camping ordinances. This blocked civil and criminal penalties in the Western states under their jurisdiction, including California.

What do California lawmakers want the Supreme Court to do?

Since then, some judges have blocked cities from clearing their encampments unless there are enough shelter beds for the entire homeless population. Lawmakers have said, among other things, that the Ninth Circuit rulings were confusing and did not properly distinguish between voluntary and involuntary homelessness.

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

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

“No compassion, no compassion whatsoever, leaving people in those circumstances when we had an alternative,” Newsom said. “But the judge said, ‘You cannot 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 approach to homelessness, argued in a brief submitted to the Supreme Court that the decision failed to set the course for determining whether a person is involuntarily homeless.

Republican lawmakers — including Reps. Kevin Kiley, R-Rocklin, Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, and Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale — have said courts should not decide how communities regulate encampments.

In a letter submitted to the Supreme Court, an attorney for them and other Republican members of Congress urged the Supreme Court to overturn Martin v. Boise “to ensure that local municipalities are fully capable of combating the crime that inevitably results from unlimited homeless encampments.”

“We urge the Supreme Court to allow local jurisdictions to adopt commonsense policies to limit encampments in public spaces,” Kiley said in a statement Thursday. “Cities must be able to take action to protect public health and safety, while connecting people 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.

Rabinowitz of the National Homelessness Law Center, which filed a letter on behalf of these lawmakers: “It’s time to not only move away from things that harm people, like jails, handcuffs and fines, and actually fund proven solutions to homelessness, such as housing. and services.”

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Gillian Brassil is the congressional reporter for McClatchy’s California publications. She covers federal policies, people and issues affecting the Golden State from Capitol Hill. She graduated from Stanford University.