Become a Patron!

Supreme Court’s Landmark Ruling on Homeless Encampments

The Supreme Court’s upcoming ruling on homeless encampments could reshape laws nationwide, impacting cities’ abilities to manage growing homelessness crises.

By Darius Spearman (africanelements) | June 4, 2024

Support African Elements at patreon.com/africanelements and hear recent news in a continuous playlist. Additionally, you can gain early access to ad-free video content.

The U.S. Supreme Court will soon decide a landmark case that could reshape how cities address homelessness. The case, City of Grants Pass v. Johnson, will determine whether banning outdoor sleeping violates the constitutional rights of homeless individuals when no shelter is available (SOURCE: AP News).

9th Circuit’s Groundbreaking Ruling on Homelessness

In 2018, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Martin v. City of Boise that cities cannot enforce anti-camping ordinances if they lack sufficient homeless shelter beds. This decision impacts nine western states under the 9th Circuit’s jurisdiction.

“As long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.” – 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Martin v. Boise (SOURCE: Justia)

Cities’ Struggle with Encampment Management

Grants Pass challenges the 9th Circuit’s extension of the Martin ruling, which also prohibits imposing civil fines on homeless individuals for sleeping outside when no alternatives exist. The city argues that these decisions impede efforts to manage growing encampments, leading to public health and safety issues (SOURCES: Reuters, Supreme Court, Downtown.org).

Advocates: Laws Criminalize Homelessness

Homeless advocates argue that the ordinances unconstitutionally punish people for sleeping outside even when they have nowhere else to go. They contend that many cities lack adequate shelter space, and overturning the 9th Circuit rulings would resume this harmful practice (SOURCES: AP News, Reuters, The Sacramento Bee).

Supreme Court’s Homeless Ruling: Justice or Injustice?

Homelessness and Racial Injustice

The U.S. Supreme Court is deciding a landmark case, City of Grants Pass v. Johnson, that could reshape how cities address homelessness. This case questions whether laws banning outdoor sleeping violate constitutional rights when no shelter is available (SOURCE: AP News).

Previous 9th Circuit Ruling on Anti-Camping Laws

In 2018, the 9th Circuit Court ruled in Martin v. City of Boise that cities cannot enforce anti-camping ordinances if they lack sufficient homeless shelters. This decision impacts nine western states (SOURCES: Reuters, Wikipedia).

“As long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.” – 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Martin v. Boise (SOURCE: Justia)

City of Grants Pass Challenges Ruling

Grants Pass argues that the 9th Circuit’s ruling hinders their ability to manage encampments. They claim the decision has led to public health and safety issues, making it difficult to regulate growing homeless populations (SOURCES: Reuters, Supreme Court, Downtown.org).

Advocates Fight Against Criminalization

Homeless advocates argue that these laws unfairly punish people for sleeping outside when they have nowhere else to go. They believe overturning the 9th Circuit’s rulings will criminalize homelessness, as many cities lack adequate shelter space (SOURCES: AP News, Reuters, The Sacramento Bee).

Racial Disparities in Homelessness

Overrepresentation in the Homeless Population

African Americans comprise 13% of the U.S. population but over 40% of the homeless population. The rate of homelessness for African Americans is nearly four times higher than the overall population rate. In 2022, 37% of all homeless people were Black, despite making up only 13% of the population.

Bar graph showing homelessness rates per 10,000 people, with African Americans having a significantly higher rate compared to the overall population. Source: endhomelessness.org.
This bar graph compares the lifetime prevalence of homelessness between African Americans and white Americans African Americans are significantly more likely to experience homelessness at some point in their lives

Lifetime Prevalence

One in six African Americans will experience homelessness at some point in their lives, compared to one in twenty white Americans. The lowest rate of lifetime homelessness among African Americans is still over four times higher than the highest rate for white Americans.

Bar graph comparing the lifetime prevalence of homelessness, showing a higher percentage for African Americans. Source: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov.
This bar graph compares the lifetime prevalence of homelessness between African Americans and white Americans African Americans are significantly more likely to experience homelessness at some point in their lives

Trends Over Time

Racial disparities in homelessness persist over time. From 2007-2017, homelessness rates for African Americans consistently doubled those for white and Asian Americans.

Line graph showing trends in homelessness rates from 2007 to 2017, highlighting higher rates for African Americans. Source: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov.
This line graph depicts the persistent racial disparities in homelessness rates from 2007 to 2017 African Americans consistently experience higher rates of homelessness compared to white and Asian Americans

Geographic Disparities

In cities like Detroit, Atlanta, and Baltimore, African Americans make up over 70% of the homeless population. Over 25% of New York’s sheltered homeless population is African American, despite being only 6% of the state’s overall population.

Contributing Factors

Poverty rates are 2.5 times higher among African Americans than whites. African Americans face housing discrimination and segregation at disproportionate rates. Incarceration rates are over six times higher for African Americans, creating barriers to housing.

Bar graph showing contributing factors to homelessness, with higher relative rates for African Americans in poverty, housing discrimination, and incarceration. Source: endhomelessness.org.
This bar graph illustrates the contributing factors to homelessness such as poverty rates housing discrimination and incarceration rates comparing African Americans to whites

Divided Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments

During oral arguments on April 22, 2024, the Supreme Court justices seemed split on the complex case. Some conservative justices questioned the lower court rulings or suggested homeless individuals may have other legal recourse. On the other hand, the liberal justices appeared more sympathetic to the plaintiffs’ plight (SOURCES: SCOTUSblog, Reuters, Washington State Standard).

High Stakes for Homelessness Solutions

With homelessness rising nationwide, the high-stakes ruling in City of Grants Pass v. Johnson, expected by June, will test the scope of Eighth Amendment protections for involuntary conduct related to one’s status. The outcome could have major implications for encampment policies from coast to coast.

Conservative Justices Question Homelessness Protections

During the nearly two-hour hearing, the court’s conservative majority appeared skeptical of arguments that homelessness should receive constitutional protection. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. suggested people can transition in and out of homelessness, making it potentially less deserving of such protection (SOURCE: Los Angeles Times).

“You can move in and out of that status.”
– Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

(SOURCE: Los Angeles Times)

Liberal Justices Concerned About Criminalizing Homelessness

Meanwhile, the court’s three liberal justices expressed concerns that the laws effectively criminalize the status of being homeless. Justice Elena Kagan noted that sleeping is a “biological necessity” and questioned whether punishing homeless people for doing so outdoors amounts to cruel and unusual punishment (SOURCES: Los Angeles Times, SCOTUSblog).

Compromise Approach Emerges

Despite the apparent divisions, some justices signaled openness to a middle-ground approach. This would allow cities to regulate outdoor sleeping and camping but not prohibit it entirely when no alternative exists. The Biden administration’s lawyer advocated for this compromise (SOURCE: Los Angeles Times).

Major Implications for Western Cities

Experts have called City of Grants Pass v. Johnson the most important Supreme Court case on homelessness in decades. The ruling could have major consequences for homeless individuals and for cities in the nine western states under the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals’ jurisdiction.

If the court overturns lower court rulings that deemed such laws unconstitutional, cities would likely have much more leeway to clear encampments and limit where unhoused people can sleep. Critics warn this could further criminalize homelessness amid a worsening crisis (SOURCES: The Sacramento Bee, CBS News).

A decision in the case is expected by the end of June. With unsheltered homelessness rising, many in California and beyond will be watching to see how the court rules and what it means for efforts to address the issue.

About the author

Darius Spearman has been a professor of Black Studies at San Diego City College since 2007. He has authored several books, including Between The Color Lines: A History of African Americans on the California Frontier Through 1890. You can visit Darius online at africanelements.org.