Supreme Court takes case on homelessness laws

The latest Supreme Court case is the largest, but not the first case to determine the rights of homeless people in the United States.

On April 22, the Supreme Court began hearing Johnson v. Grants Pass, an Eighth Amendment case questioning the city’s right to fine homeless people for sleeping outside, even if there are no safe shelter options available. This comes at a time when an estimated 500,000 citizens are experiencing homelessness nationwide according to the U.S. Department of Housing. 

The case focuses on the city of Grants Pass, Oregon, which began strictly restricting sleeping and camping on public spaces such as sidewalks, parks and streets in 2013. Grants Pass does not have any homeless shelters, with the few housing programs only able to help a small amount of the city’s homeless people.  

The plaintiffs, Gloria Johnson and John Logan, are both homeless in Grants Pass and have received multiple fines, according to court documents released by the Supreme Court. 

Grants Pass had issued $295 fines which increased to over $500 when not paid. Debra Blake, one of the original plaintiffs who passed away in 2021, was fined three times in one morning and owed more than $5,000 in fines in March 2020 according to district court documents in 2020. 

For people experiencing homelessness due to their inability to afford housing, the fines often add up, resulting in an inescapable situation where driver’s licenses may be suspended and credit scores rise, making it more difficult to acquire jobs or housing. 

Prior to reaching the Supreme Court, a federal judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, requiring the city to provide a 24-hour notice to enforce their public camping laws and discontinue the Grants Pass ordinance overnight. Through the Ninth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals, they again ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, citing that Grants Pass’s laws violated the Eighth Amendment. 

As an Eighth Amendment case, the Supreme Court will once again rule whether fining homeless people is constitutional or considered cruel and unusual punishment. The Eighth Amendment is mostly applied to punishments rather than laws, such as the death penalty, life without the possibility of parole and solitary confinement. 

“Sleeping is a biological necessity,” said Justice Kagan to the attorney for Grants Pass during oral arguments. “It’s sort of like breathing. You would not think that it’s okay to criminalize breathing in public, and for a homeless person who has no place to go, sleeping in public is kind of like breathing in public.” 

The Biden administration has joined the case but has not sided with either party, instead arguing that Grants Pass’s laws likely are a violation of the Eighth Amendment, but that mistakes were made in the previous lower court cases by not requiring further insight into the circumstances of each homeless person in the city. 

The plaintiff’s argument stems from a 1962 Supreme Court case centered on the difference between one’s state of being versus their conduct. Robinson v. California found that laws penalizing citizens with drug addictions violated the Eighth Amendment because they were being penalized for their involuntary status rather than a specific action such as drug possession.  

The plaintiffs are arguing that Grants Pass is punishing their homelessness rather than their conduct, whereas Grants Pass is arguing that this is a misunderstanding and misuse of the Eighth Amendment. 

“The stakes could not be higher for every city in the country. The problem of growing encampments will spread throughout the country,” said lawyer Theane Evangelis during oral arguments, who is representing Grants Pass and has also represented the city of Boise, Idaho in a similar case in 2018. Lawyers on behalf of the National Alliance to End Homelessness sent a brief to the Supreme Court, arguing that Grants Pass seek to push homeless people out of their city rather than work on the issue. 

Tacoma has seen an increase in homelessness of all ages, with at least 2,659 students in Tacoma Public Schools reporting as homeless according to Title I & Learning Assistance Program Taj Jensen. This number is an increase from 2023, where a reported 2033 students were homeless.  

Washington State has also seen an increase in anti-homeless architecture, designed to discourage homeless people from resting or camping. The Seattle Art Museum (SAM) received controversy in 2021 following the addition of stone bollards outside of the entrance to deter homeless people from setting up tents which resulted in a petition from SAM workers to discontinue the additions. 

The ruling of the Grants Pass Supreme Case is unlikely to come before the summer, however the result will have heavy implications on how states combat growing numbers of homelessness nationwide. 

Featured Image, Photo of the U.S. Supreme Court. Photo via