The Supreme Court Allows Cities to Enforce Camping Bans

In a blow to homelessness activists, the Grants Pass ruling means local governments can fine or jail people sleeping in public.
Text by

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Grants Pass v. Johnson: In a 6–3 decision, the nation’s highest court allowed cities to enforce camping bans, effectively allowing local governments to fine or jail unhoused residents. 

According to Harvard Law Today, the case originated when a group of unhoused residents in Grants Pass, Oregon, sued the city over ordinances that punish those sleeping in public spaces. "Because sleep is a physical need, and because Grants Pass has no public shelters for homeless people, the plaintiffs argued, its laws punish their mere existence in the municipality," reads the story.  

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, under the premise that such anti-homeless laws where there are no shelters offered violate the constitution’s eighth amendment prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishment." But the Supreme Court disagreed. "The Constitution’s Eighth Amendment serves many important functions, but it does not authorize federal judges to wrest those rights and responsibilities from the American people and in their place dictate this Nation’s homelessness policy," reads the decision penned by Justice Neil Gorsuch

A tent community in Grants Pass, Oregon.

A tent community in Grants Pass, Oregon.

Reversing the ruling made by the Ninth Circuit—which covers nine states in the western United States—will open the door for states like California and Washington, which have seen some of the highest rates of homelessness in the country, to enforce their own anti-camping policies. For instance, Los Angeles’s 41.18 ordinance bans sitting, lying, or sleeping—or placing personal property—on or near public property. Journalist Alissa Walker notes in a recent Torched newsletter that the Supreme Court ruling could prompt LA’s city council to further criminalize homelessness and unravel the city’s recent housing gains, especially as it prepares for the 2028 Olympic Games. 

But in Grants Pass, Oregon Public Broadcasting states that even under the new ruling the future of the city’s ordinances is uncertain. The state of Oregon passed a law in 2021 requiring that any rules that regulate where unhoused residents can sleep on public property must be "objectively reasonable"—though that term remains vague. "The city will now have to figure out what restrictions it can have while still following Oregon’s state law," reads the story. 

Though Vox calls the Grants Pass case, "the most significant legal challenge to the rights of homeless people in decades," it also notes that advocates for the unhoused are planning to push for other local and federal legislation that redirects the national conversation to solutions to homelessness, including, "including universal rental assistance, repairs to public housing, and funds for eviction prevention."  

Top image credit: Kevin Dietsch


Get the Pro Newsletter

What’s new in the design world? Stay up to date with our essential dispatches for design professionals.