Supreme Court to Rule on Constitutionality of Criminalizing Homelessness in Boise Case

The Supreme Court is set to rule on the constitutionality of an Oregon ordinance that criminalizes homelessness, with nationwide implications for how cities address this complex social issue.

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Supreme Court to Rule on Constitutionality of Criminalizing Homelessness in Boise Case

Supreme Court to Rule on Constitutionality of Criminalizing Homelessness in Boise Case

The U.S. Supreme Court is set to rule on the constitutionality of a Grants Pass, Oregon ordinance that allows police to arrest people for sleeping in public, even if they have nowhere else to go. The case, which stems from a similar ordinance in Boise, Idaho, is being closely watched as it could potentially impact homelessness policies nationwide.

In 2019, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Martin v. Boise that it is unconstitutional to impose criminal penalties on people for sleeping outside when there is no alternative shelter space available. The current case before the Supreme Court, City of Grants Pass v. Johnson, builds upon that precedent.

Grants Pass began enforcing ordinances in 2013 that made it illegal to sleep on public property using bedding. The city was sued by a group of homeless residents, and a federal court ruled that the laws were unconstitutional based on the Eighth Amendment's protection against cruel and unusual punishment. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the lower court, and Grants Pass appealed to the Supreme Court.

Why this matters: The Supreme Court's decision in this case will have nationwide implications for how cities address homelessness through anti-camping laws. It raises challenging policy questions about the criminalization of homelessness and the lack of affordable housing and social safety net support for the unhoused population.

During oral arguments, the Supreme Court's conservative majority appeared skeptical of the lower court's ruling, with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh suggesting the Court should defer to local officials on homelessness issues. Grants Pass argues that the Eighth Amendment only prohibits certain methods of punishment, not laws against camping on public property.

The homeless plaintiffs contend that the city's ordinance makes it impossible for them to live in Grants Pass without risking punishment. They argue the ordinances force unhoused people to use prohibited items like blankets and tents to survive in wet weather, and that repeated civil violations can lead to criminal prosecution.

The case highlights the ongoing debate over the criminalization of homelessness and the role of the federal judiciary in addressing this complex social issue. Supporters of Grants Pass include conservatives and some liberal leaders in West Coast cities, while opponents fear the Supreme Court's ruling could open the floodgates for jurisdictions to further penalize homeless populations.

The number of homeless people in the U.S. has increased by nearly 15% since 2007. Multiple cities and towns, particularly in the 9th Circuit, have passed ordinances related to homelessness or urban camping with the Boise and Grants Pass rulings in mind. The Supreme Court's decision in City of Grants Pass v. Johnson will provide important guidance on the constitutionality of these policies moving forward.

Key Takeaways

  • Supreme Court to rule on constitutionality of Grants Pass, OR anti-camping law
  • 2019 9th Circuit ruling found Boise, ID anti-camping law unconstitutional
  • Grants Pass law criminalizes public sleeping, even with no shelter available
  • Supreme Court conservative majority skeptical of lower court's ruling
  • Decision could impact homelessness policies nationwide, with concerns over criminalization