Supreme Court faces critical decision on homelessness: The battle over public sleeping laws in grants pass

As the Supreme Court scrutinizes the criminalization of homelessness, liberal justices challenge the constitutionality of punishing the essential human act of sleeping, highlighting the plight of affected families and children.

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The U.S. Supreme Court recently became the stage for a fervent debate on whether cities can penalize homeless individuals for sleeping in public spaces. The case, originating from Grants Pass, Oregon, has thrust the issue of homelessness and city ordinances against public camping into the national spotlight, with significant implications for human rights and urban policy.

At the heart of the controversy is the city of Grants Pass’ enforcement of ordinances that fine or otherwise penalize homeless people for sleeping on public property. Represented by attorney Thomas Evangelis, the city argued that sleeping in public could be regulated as “conduct.” This stance was met with critical scrutiny from the court’s liberal justices, who underscored sleeping as a biological necessity, not a choice.

Justice Elena Kagan, appointed by former President Barack Obama, challenged the city’s position by comparing the necessity of sleeping to breathing, suggesting the absurdity of criminalizing such fundamental human functions. “Presumably you would not think that it’s okay to criminalize breathing in public,” Kagan remarked during the hearing. Her analogy drew attention to the harsh realities faced by the homeless, particularly vulnerable populations like children, who are disproportionately affected by such laws.

The case, Grants Pass v. Johnson, traces back to a lawsuit filed by Debra Blake, an unhoused woman who argued that the city’s actions were aimed at forcing homeless individuals like herself out of town. The city’s approach included past policies of providing bus tickets to homeless individuals to encourage them to leave, a method that Justice Sonia Sotomayor highlighted as ineffective and inhumane, as many returned to Grants Pass, their home community.

Supporting the liberal justices’ views, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson emphasized that prohibiting sleeping essentially denies homeless people the right to exist within city limits. “So if you can’t sleep, you can’t live, and therefore by prohibiting sleeping, the city is basically saying you cannot live in Grants Pass,” Jackson stated, encapsulating the critical human rights issue at stake.

Outside the Supreme Court, a rally led by housing rights advocates and including voices from across the nation underscored the broader social movement against such ordinances. U.S. Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), who has personally experienced homelessness and is an advocate for substantial policy reform, spoke vehemently against the criminalization of homelessness. “A person should never be punished for sleeping outside or in a car when they have no other place to go. A person should never be punished for simply existing,” Bush declared, calling for systemic solutions like universal housing and federal rental assistance programs.

The backdrop of this legal battle is a housing crisis that has escalated across the United States. Data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Eviction Lab at Princeton University paints a grim picture of increasing evictions and a dire shortage of affordable rental housing, compounding the challenges faced by low-income families and exacerbating the rates of homelessness.

The city’s only homeless shelter, the Gospel Rescue Mission, with its limited capacity of 138 beds, stands as a stark symbol of the inadequate support structures available to the hundreds of homeless individuals in Grants Pass. This shortage is critical as it directly impacts children and families, thrusting them into a cycle of poverty and instability.

As the Supreme Court deliberates on this case, the decision will resonate far beyond the borders of Grants Pass. It will signal how America’s legal framework interprets the rights of the most vulnerable, particularly in how cities manage public spaces and address homelessness.

As the Supreme Court deliberates on Grants Pass v. Johnson, the implications extend across the United States, affecting both legal precedents and the lives of thousands of unhoused individuals. The case challenges the constitutionality of penalizing homeless people for public sleeping, an issue that has garnered significant attention from civil rights advocates and the general public. With a ruling expected in June, the decision will directly impact how cities can legally address the visibility of homelessness within their jurisdictions.

Reflecting on the decision, Rep. Cori Bush emphasized, “We need universal housing, universal housing vouchers, and a permanent federal rental assistance program—these are all tangible steps that would actually solve this crisis.”

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Alexandra Jacobo is a dedicated progressive writer, activist, and mother with a deep-rooted passion for social justice and political engagement. Her journey into political activism began in 2011 at Zuccotti Park, where she supported the Occupy movement by distributing blankets to occupiers, marking the start of her earnest commitment to progressive causes. Driven by a desire to educate and inspire, Alexandra focuses her writing on a range of progressive issues, aiming to foster positive change both domestically and internationally. Her work is characterized by a strong commitment to community empowerment and a belief in the power of informed public action. As a mother, Alexandra brings a unique and personal perspective to her activism, understanding the importance of shaping a better world for future generations. Her writing not only highlights the challenges we face but also champions the potential for collective action to create a more equitable and sustainable world.

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