Mon, Jul

California Leaders Take Sides in Monumental Supreme Court Case on Homelessness


SUPREMES - The U.S. Supreme Court is about to hear a case that will have major implications on homelessness policy in California. Find out where your leaders stand on the issue. 

The U.S. Supreme Court is about to hear the biggest case about homelessness in decades, and it seems like everyone in California has an opinion. 

At issue: whether and under what conditions cities can fine or arrest people for camping in public spaces. The ruling will have nationwide implications for how local leaders manage homeless encampments.

Where does Gov. Gavin Newsom stand on that issue? What about the leaders of California’s major cities? Our law enforcement agencies? Homelessness experts? How about President Joe Biden’s administration?

Good questions! The good news is we can actually answer that. Many people and organizations have filed amicus briefs to the Supreme Court for the case, which means they’ve written out their opinion and submitted it in writing to the Justices for them to consider. 

Read on to find out where many of the most important stakeholders in the homelessness crisis stand on homeless encampments. 

What’s at stake in these Supreme Court arguments

The case, Johnson v. Grants Pass, stems from a 2018 lawsuit challenging an ordinance approved by the small city in Southern Oregon that essentially made it illegal for homeless residents to camp on all public property throughout the city.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case Monday, to determine if the ordinance violates the 8th Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment to penalize someone for camping if they have nowhere else to go. 

“This is the most important Supreme Court case about homelessness in at least 40 years, and the results will be tremendous,” Jesse Rabinowitz, communications and campaign director of the National Homelessness Law Center, said during a media call.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals already has ruled in the Grants Pass case, and in a prior case (Martin v. Boise) that cities cannot punish someone for camping if that person has no other shelter. Grants Pass has asked the Supreme Court to overturn both prior rulings. 

Since the Ninth Circuit first weighed in, numerous California cities have been sued over their efforts to remove homeless camps. Judges have delayed or halted efforts in several places, including San Francisco, Sacramento, Chico and San Rafael. On Tuesday, California Democrats voted to kill a bill that would have prohibited encampments near schools and other areas statewide.

More than three dozen elected officials and organizations have weighed in on the Grants Pass case. 

“This is the most important Supreme Court case about homelessness in at least 40 years, and the results will be tremendous.”

Jesse Rabinowitz, communications and campaign director, National Homelessness Law Centernormal

Taking the pro-enforcement side

Those on this side argue that by restricting the enforcement of anti-camping ordinances, the courts have made it impossible for cities to lessen the harm encampments do to neighborhoods. They also argue the prior rulings — which they want overturned — are confusing and too hard to follow. 

  • California State Sheriffs’ Association and California Police Chiefs Association: Local governments now have little or no power to enforce rules when it comes to homeless residents, “leading to an explosion of encampments throughout the state of California.” 
  • California State Association of Counties and League of California Cities: The courts have become “micromanagers” of homelessness policy. Those decisions instead should be left up to cities and counties.
  • California Republican Reps. Kevin Kiley of Rocklin, Doug LaMalfa of Yuba City, Tom McClintock of El Dorado Hills, Jay Obernolte of Hesperla and Darrell Issa of Temecula: “Statistics demonstrate that homeless encampments and crime go hand-in-hand,” and therefore the Ninth Circuit rulings have made it practically impossible for cities to combat crime.
  • Venice Stakeholders Association: The rulings have created an “extreme imbalance between the rights of the homeless and those of Venice’s residents and business owners” who have to deal with encampments near their homes and businesses. 
  • Office of the San Diego County District Attorney: San Diego recently passed an ordinance banning homeless encampments near schools, shelters and transit hubs and in parks, and, if shelter is available, on public sidewalks. The recent Ninth Circuit rulings “create uncertainty about the validity of the ordinance as a whole.” 
  • California Chamber of Commerce: Employers have trouble hiring and keeping employees, and attracting customers, when their business is near a homeless encampment.
  • Cicero Institute: The Cicero Institute, a public policy organization, drafted model anti-camping legislation that has been adopted in states including Texas and Utah. “Several jurisdictions have made great progress by enforcing public camping bans.”

Siding with homeless residents: Banning camping is inhumane

These groups and individuals support court rulings that limit enforcement of anti-camping ordinances. They argue punishing someone for camping when there isn’t enough shelter available — as is the case in most California cities — is wrong.

  • California Democratic Reps. Ro Khanna of Fremont, Barbara Lee of Oakland and Linda Sanchez of Whittier: “Punishing human beings for existing when they have nowhere safe to rest is not only unconstitutional, it is also the least effective and most costly response a city can choose.”
  • American Psychiatric Association and the National Alliance on Mental Illness: For unhoused people with severe mental illness, being approached by police for violating a camping ban could turn into a deadly altercation. People with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement than those without a mental illness.
  • National Homelessness Law Center: The Grants Pass ordinance is just as morally and legally wrong as Jim Crow Laws and “anti-Okie” laws that discriminated against refugees migrating into California during the Dust Bowl.
  • 57 social scientists who have published research on homelessness: Research shows that punishing people for camping negatively impacts their physical and mental health, exacerbates the spread of disease and prolongs homelessness by making it harder for them to get out of debt, find jobs and access housing and other services.
  • American Civil Liberties Union: The Grants Pass ordinance punishes people for “unavoidable, life-sustaining, and fundamentally human acts.”
  • National Coalition of Men: The court should consider whether Grants Pass is discriminating against a protected class by targeting unsheltered homeless people in its anti-camping ordinance.

Research shows that punishing people for camping prolongs homelessness by making it harder for them to get out of debt, find jobs and access housing and other services.

Taking neither side: A middle-of-the-road approach

Homelessness policy is a hyper-emotional, intensely polarizing issue, and by siding with neither party in the Grants Pass case, those in this group are attempting to occupy the political middle-ground. They don’t want to be seen as supporters of “criminalizing homelessness.” But they also don’t want to be seen as too soft on enforcement. 

They say it’s wrong to prohibit camping everywhere in a city if a person has nowhere else to sleep. But they also want cities to have more freedom to clear camps and enforce camping bans. 

  • Gov. Gavin Newsom: Local courts are blocking “common-sense” efforts to clear encampments. “There is no compassion in stepping over people in the streets, and there is no dignity in allowing people to die in dangerous, fire-prone encampments. Hindering cities’ efforts to help their unhoused populations is as inhumane as it is unworkable.”
  • City of Los Angeles: “The city does not support efforts to criminalize people who are experiencing involuntary homelessness. However, the City does have a paramount interest in its ability to protect public health and safety.”
  • City of San Francisco and Mayor London Breed: The Supreme Court should not allow cities to ban camping everywhere, at all times, in all public spaces. “Doing so could not only be cruel and unusual, but it would also create perverse incentives to force unhoused individuals to migrate to jurisdictions like San Francisco that do not do so.” San Francisco is currently under a court order that prevents the city from enforcing its anti-camping ordinances.
  • President Joe Biden’s administration: A person should not be criminalized because they are homeless. But “broad and burdensome” injunctions issued by some district courts limit cities’ abilities to respond to encampments.

“I support CalMatters because climate change and the environment are important issues for planet Earth. Knowledge should be driving action.”

Leslie, Washington, CA

(Marisa Kendall reports on California's homelessness crisis for CalMatters. She previously covered homelessness for the Bay Area News Group, courts for The Recorder in San Francisco and crime for The News-Press in Fort Myers, Florida. She's a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C. This story was first featured in CalMatters.org.)