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Supreme Court takes up key homelessness case

By Sheri Chapman, general counsel

The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday agreed to review a lower court’s ruling in Johnson v. City of Grants Pass. The opinion prohibits Grants Pass, Oregon, from enforcing its anti-camping ordinances against all involuntarily homeless individuals within the city.

Cal Cities partnered with the California State Association of Counties to file an amicus brief supporting the City’s request the high court review the opinion. Cal Cities also anticipates filing an amicus brief on the merits of the case.

The question before the Supreme Court is “Does the enforcement of generally applicable laws regulating camping on public property constitute ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ prohibited by the Eighth Amendment?”

The Supreme Court’s decision to review the case signals that the court may finally provide clarity on whether cities can use ordinances — one of many tools — to handle public health and safety concerns that arise from unlawful encampments on public property.

The Supreme Court’s decision comes as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit made a ruling in another high-profile homelessness case. Last week, the court issued an opinion in Coalition on Homelessness v. City and County of San Francisco that further hamstrings cities’ efforts to implement reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions on camping on public property.

In that decision, the 9th Circuit confirmed that persons who are offered, but refuse shelter are not “involuntarily homeless.” Therefore, cities can enforce ordinances to address concerns related to some encampments on public property. However, the court’s opinion is in line with prior cases that found cities have an obligation to provide shelter before they implement anti-camping ordinances.

The dissent characterized that opinion as letting stand “an injunction permitting homeless persons to sleep anywhere, anytime in public in the City of San Francisco unless adequate shelter is provided.”

The Supreme Court’s review of Johnson v. City of Grants Pass should provide clarity and guidance to cities trying to respond to public health and safety concerns related to unlawful encampments on public property. With 25 amici briefs filed — 14 originating in California — there is significant interest in the high court’s decision.


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