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Five things to know about the Grants Pass homelessness case before the US Supreme Court

The Rogue River as seen from Grants Pass's Riverside Park, where people have camped.
Jane Vaughan
The Rogue River as seen from Grants Pass's Riverside Park, where people have camped.

On April 22, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case City of Grants Pass, Oregon, v. Gloria Johnson. The original legal complaint was filed in October 2018, and nearly six years later, it has made its way from Grants Pass up to the highest court in the country.

Here are five things to know about the case.

What is the case about?  

The root of this case is the alleged criminalization of homelessness and whether a city has the right to enforce laws against camping in public when there’s nowhere else for people to sleep. Lawyers for the homeless argue that’s cruel and unusual punishment, which is prohibited under the Eighth Amendment.

In the original legal complaint, plaintiff Debra Blake, represented by the Oregon Law Center, claimed that “Grants Pass is trying to run homeless people out of town.” Blake has since passed away, and Gloria Johnson and John Logan are named as plaintiffs in Grants Pass v. Johnson.

Johnson was involuntarily homeless in Grants Pass. Without adequate shelter options, she says she was punished for sleeping outside, facing citation for camping in a park and prohibition from sleeping in her van. She claims the city’s municipal code, which prohibits camping on any public property, violated the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause and Excessive Fines Clause because Grants Pass has no low-barrier shelters and thus, nowhere else for her to go.

In July 2020, the district court in Medford ruled that Grants Pass’s ordinances regulating homelessness were unconstitutional. Grants Pass appealed that decision to the 9th Circuit Court, based in San Francisco, which upheld it in a three-judge decision. Grants Pass requested that all 29 judges on the 9th Circuit Court hear the case, but they voted not to do so.

Now, the case will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.

What argument is each side making? 

The city of Grants Pass argues that past rulings in this case prevent “governments from proactively addressing the serious social policy problems associated with the homelessness crisis.”

The city argues that fines and short jail terms are not cruel and unusual punishments under the Eighth Amendment.

Lawyers for Grants Pass also say it’s not the court’s responsibility to determine whether a person camping in public is doing so involuntarily, whether there are shelter beds available or how to count available shelters. They say this leads “to sweeping injunctions barring enforcement of basic laws protecting public health and safety, as well as an ever-present threat of litigation whenever a municipality tries to address the spread of encampments.”

 A sign at the entrance to Riverside Park, where many unhoused people camp.
Jane Vaughan
A sign at the entrance to Riverside Park, where many unhoused people camp.

Meanwhile, attorneys for the homeless argue that punishing homeless people with tickets or fines when there’s nowhere else for them to go violates the Eighth Amendment.

The city’s ordinances “punish homeless people for sleeping or resting anywhere on public property at any time with so much as a blanket to survive the cold, regardless of whether they have anywhere else to go,” they write in court documents. “The ordinances make it physically impossible for a homeless person who does not have access to shelter to remain in Grants Pass without facing endless fines and jail time.”

Attorneys for the homeless say they fear that the city’s actions will set “off a banishment race with other municipalities, resulting in a spate of local punishment schemes that collectively operate as a nationwide ban on homelessness.”

Who else has weighed in on this case? 

Just since the case was accepted by the Supreme Court in January, there have been 84 amicus, or friend of the court, briefs filed, which allow groups that do not have a direct stake in the case to offer their opinions. They’re split about evenly in terms of which side they support, and some were in favor of neither party, which include thoughts about the case but do not take a side.

On the city of Grants Pass’s side, there’s a brief filed by 24 states, including Idaho and Montana. They argue that earlier court rulings “infringes their sovereign authority over homelessness policy and criminal law.” Six members of Congress weighed in on a similar note, as did 13 California cities.

On the other side, the ACLU, Southern Poverty Law Center, National Homelessness Law Center and Oregon Food Bank have weighed in.

“When applied to people with nowhere else to go, the ordinances in this case disproportionately punish unavoidable, life-sustaining, and fundamentally human acts. Punishing the most vulnerable among us for such behavior violates the Eighth Amendment,” the ACLU writes.

There’s also a brief from 57 social scientists who say they have published research on homelessness. They argue “The enforcement of anti-homeless laws has wide-ranging and lingering negative impacts on those experiencing homelessness and creates significant barriers to exiting homelessness.”

California Governor Gavin Newsom filed a brief in favor of neither party. Nearly a third of all people experiencing homelessness nationally live in California, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Newsom writes that homeless people should not be punished for sleeping outside when they have nowhere else to go, but recent court decisions “have impeded not only the ability to enforce basic health and safety measures, but also the ability to move people into available shelter beds and temporary housing where they can be connected with critical services.”

Are there other cases that would affect how the justices might rule in this case? 

This case was preceded by Martin v. City of Boise from 2018, in which a lower court found that under the Eighth Amendment, cities cannot punish homeless people for sleeping on public property when they cannot get shelter.

Another case that is frequently referred to here is Robinson v. California from 1962. That ruling says it’s unconstitutional for a state to punish someone for being a drug addict, which is a status rather than an act, like committing a crime. While it can be illegal to do things like possess or buy drugs, the simple status of being a drug addict (or alcoholic, etc.) cannot be a crime. In this case, the homeless argue that Grants Pass’s actions have effectively made it a crime to be homeless in the city, which they argue is illegal. The city of Grants Pass argues that this case does not involve status, and unhoused people are being punished simply for violating public camping laws.

How important is this case, really? 

Clearly, there is a lot of interest in this case. The U.S. Supreme Court interprets laws nationally, so its decision about Grants Pass v. Johnson could have broad implications for how municipalities can regulate homelessness.

However, Oregon passed another law in 2021, in the midst of this case. It specifies that rules regulating where homeless people can rest or sleep on public property must be “objectively reasonable.” It’s led to cities across Oregon developing their own policies related to public camping in the last year. This new law means that no matter what the Supreme Court decides regarding cruel and unusual punishment in the form of tickets or fines, Grants Pass, and the rest of Oregon, will still have to follow this state law regarding the regulation of camping in public.

The specific legal impacts this ruling could have depend on how narrowly the Court rules and which particular issues they choose to take up.

Meanwhile, the number of homeless people in Grants Pass has been growing, and the city, like much of Oregon, suffers from a lack of housing after years of under-building. No matter how the Supreme Court rules, the country – including filers on both sides of the issue – will be looking for a way to address the growing homeless population.
Copyright 2024 Jefferson Public Radio.

Jane Vaughan