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Supreme Court Ruling Could Allow Towns to Ban Homeless Camping

In Partnership with the Westside Current.

The U.S. Supreme Court deliberated a landmark case Monday, Grants Pass v. Johnson, which could significantly alter how towns and cities across Vermont, and the nation address homeless encampments. 

The case, originating from a 2018 lawsuit by homeless residents of Grants Pass, challenges city ordinances that ban camping even in the absence of available shelter beds.

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Homeless advocates argue that such restrictions criminalize the status of being homeless, thus violating the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Lower courts supported this stance, finding that penalizing unhoused individuals for sleeping in public places when no alternative shelter is available is unconstitutional.   

The city of Grants Pass maintains that anti-camping laws are vital for maintaining public safety. "Laws like ours really do serve an essential purpose," stated Theane Evangelis, representing the city, which has implemented a ban on encampments. "They protect the health and safety of everyone. Living in encampments is not safe; it’s unsanitary, and we witness the effects. There are harms associated with the encampments that affect both those residing in them and the wider community."

During the oral arguments, the ideological split within the Supreme Court was clear. Liberal justices showed greater receptivity to the positions of homeless residents than their conservative colleagues.

“Where do we put them if every city, every village, every town lacks compassion and enacts a similar law?” Sotomayor questioned. “Where are they supposed to sleep? Are they supposed to kill themselves from lack of sleep?”

Even Justice Brett Kavanaugh, appointed by former President Donald Trump, questioned the effectiveness of the Grants Pass camping ban in helping people move off the streets and into shelters. “How does it help if there are not enough beds for the number of homeless people in the jurisdiction?” he asked the attorney for Grants Pass.

The justices focused on a pivotal question: Does Grants Pass’ city-wide camping prohibition criminalize the status of being homeless or merely the act of camping in public?

They noted that the distinction is critical, as decades earlier, the Supreme Court ruled that a person cannot be punished for their status, only their actions—someone cannot be arrested for being addicted to drugs, but can be arrested for using drugs.

The discussion also delved into deeper philosophical questions. Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., appointed by former President George Bush, raised hypotheticals to challenge the rationale of previous rulings.

“Is being a bank robber a status?” he asked. And further: "If someone is hungry and needs food to survive, can they be punished for breaking into a store?"

The Supreme Court's ruling is anticipated in late June.  .

Read more details, including how the state of California is handling the case, here.

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