Supreme Court Grapples with Homelessness Crisis in Landmark Case

Justices Weigh Legality of Anti-Camping Ordinances Targeting Homeless

The U.S. Supreme Court grappled with a critical issue on Monday: the legality of local laws that criminalize homelessness. The case, originating from Grants Pass, Oregon, pits a southwest Oregon city’s anti-vagrancy policy against the rights of homeless individuals.

Challenge to Anti-Camping Laws

The city of Grants Pass is appealing a lower court ruling that found its anti-camping ordinances violated the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment. This ruling stemmed from a lawsuit filed by three homeless individuals in Grants Pass who argued that the city’s ordinances essentially punished them for being homeless, especially when there weren’t enough shelter beds available.

Ideological Divide on the Court

During the court arguments, a clear ideological split emerged among the justices. Liberal justices seemed poised to favor the homeless plaintiffs, upholding the lower court’s decision. Conservative justices, however, appeared more skeptical. Some questioned the lower court’s reasoning, while others suggested homeless people might have alternative legal options. The court currently leans conservative with a 6-3 majority.

Focus of the Case

The case centers on three ordinances in Grants Pass, a city of approximately 38,000 residents. These ordinances prohibit sleeping in public areas like streets, alleyways, and parks while using bedding or blankets. Violators face fines of $295, and repeat offenders risk criminal trespass charges punishable by up to 30 days in jail.

Legal Battle Unfolds

The lawsuit challenging these ordinances was filed in 2018 by three homeless individuals in Grants Pass as a class-action suit. Sadly, one of the plaintiffs has passed away since then. The case progressed through the court system, with a U.S. Magistrate Judge initially ruling in favor of the homeless plaintiffs, finding the city’s practices violated the Eighth Amendment. This decision was upheld by the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.