STATEMENT: SCOTUS takes up Johnson v. Grants Pass, the most significant case about homelessness in 40+ years

WASHINGTON, D.C. – (January 12th, 2024)

Today, the Supreme Court of the United States announced that they would hear the case of Johnson v. Grants Pass. This sets the stage for the most significant Supreme Court case about the rights of homeless people in decades. At its core, this case will decide whether cities are allowed to punish people for things like sleeping outside with a pillow or blanket, even when there are no safe shelter options.  

The National Homelessness Law Center fully expects the Supreme Court to protect the rights of people who are forced to live outside and to follow the consistent precedents set by lower federal courts. The Constitution’s protection from Cruel and Unusual punishment applies to all people, not just those fortunate enough to have their own home. In deciding this case, SCOTUS will determine if people who are forced to sleep outside are allowed to do so without the threat of arrest or fines.  

Contrary to the statements of those who believe cities can arrest and ticket their way out of homelessness, this case does not limit communities’ response to addressing homelessness. Cities remain free to use any of the many evidence-based approaches that end homelessness, like housing.  All this case says is that, unless everybody has access to shelter that meets their needs, they cannot be arrested, ticketed, or otherwise punished for sleeping outside. If politicians were truly focused on ending homelessness, they would focus on proven solutions like housing and services. Sadly, too many policymakers seem eager to focus on costly, harmful solutions – like jails and fines – that make homelessness worse. Cities that have failed to provide for the basic needs of their residents, like housing and shelter, should not be allowed to punish people when they have no safe place to go.  

Homelessness is growing not because cities lack ways to punish people for being poor, but because a growing number of hard-working Americans are struggling to pay rent and make ends meet. Grants Pass, Oregon, like many cities in America, is thousands of housing units short of what is needed. The lack of housing and resulting homelessness will not be solved by putting more people in jail or issuing more fines. The solution to homelessness is safe, decent, and affordable housing for everybody.   

Still, not criminalizing homelessness is the bare minimum. The rent is too high for most Americans, and many hard-working families are just one missed paycheck or accident away from losing their housing. The Court’s ruling will have a tremendous impact on the 250,000 people who sleep outside on a given night. We are confident that the court will affirm what we have said for years: the solution to homelessness is housing, not jail cells or courtrooms.   

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