Supreme Court Revisits Legality of Penalizing Homeless for Public Camping

 April 20, 2024

The Supreme Court of the United States is poised to deliberate on a landmark case.

According to CBS News, this significant legal examination intertwines questions of constitutional rights with pressing public health and safety concerns related to homelessness.

In Grants Pass, Oregon, a mandate exists that subjects homeless individuals to fines and potential incarceration for occupying public spaces as sleeping areas. This practice has sparked a judicial review that zeroes in on the broader implications of homelessness and urban policy.

Origin in Oregon: The Case's Roots and Broader Implications

Three homeless residents from Grants Pass initiated legal action against the city in 2018, citing that the camping bans infringe upon the Eighth Amendment, which guards against cruel and unusual punishment. This dispute ascended through the judicial system, reaching the 9th Circuit Court, which ruled that such ordinances could not be enforced whenever adequate shelter spaces were absent.

This has culminated in a Supreme Court case that is attracting nationwide attention. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar emphasized that the ruling by lower courts has restrained cities’ efforts to manage encampments effectively.

The city of Grants Pass, backed by multiple other municipalities, voiced that previous court decisions debilitate them from confronting homelessness and maintaining civic order. Statistics from December 2023 unveiled a distressing 12% increase in homelessness across the U.S., correlating this rise with soaring housing costs and the cessation of COVID-19 aid programs.

Public Response and Legal Arguments

Jesse Rabinowitz, a renowned advocate on homelessness issues, declared this hearing as perhaps the most consequential in over four decades concerning the rights of the homeless.

Ed Johnson, representing the homeless plaintiffs, articulated the poignant core of the lawsuit, "Our case has always been about this narrow and fundamental issue that's currently before the Supreme Court. Can a city make it illegal on every inch of city land, every minute of the day, for people to live outside when they have nowhere else to go? We believe the answer is no."

Legal representatives from San Francisco expound that the inability to enforce local laws due to nationwide injunctions hampers the city's governance over public spaces and the enforcement of locally established policies. Echoed by a briefing from state attorneys general, they argue that upholding the 9th Circuit's ruling could severely limit local governments' capabilities to address varied aspects of homelessness, contending that not all complex societal issues involve constitutional dimensions.

In contrast, several Democrat-led states submitted arguments in favor of the plaintiffs, pointing out that penalizing the involuntarily homeless merely for sleeping in public places amounts to an unconstitutional criminalization of their circumstances.


The impending decision, expected by the end of June 2024, will significantly influence urban strategies towards managing public spaces and addressing homelessness. Demonstrations outside City Hall in Grants Pass on March 20, 2024, highlight the community's engagement and concern over this issue.

This legal battle unveils the tense interplay between individual rights and collective welfare amidst escalating urban housing challenges.

As cities and states watch closely, the Supreme Court's verdict will inevitably shape the legal and moral landscape concerning how society addresses the visibly unfurling crisis of homelessness.

About Victor Winston

Victor is a freelance writer and researcher who focuses on national politics, geopolitics, and economics.

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