Supreme Court OKs Local Crackdowns on Homelessness, as Advocates Warn of Chaos


The U.S. Supreme Court’s watershed decision on homelessness Friday will make it easier for elected officials and law enforcement authorities nationwide to fine and arrest people who live on streets and sidewalks, in broken-down vehicles, or within city parks — which could have far-reaching health consequences for homeless Americans and their communities.

In a 6-to-3 ruling in City of Grants Pass v. Johnson, the justices in the majority said allowing the targeting of homeless people occupying public spaces by enforcing bans on public sleeping or camping with criminal or civil penalties is not cruel and unusual punishment, even if there are no alternative shelter or housing options available for them.

“It’s hard to imagine the chaos that is going to ensue. It’ll have horrible consequences for mental and physical health,” said Ed Johnson, director of litigation at the Oregon Law Center and lead attorney representing homeless defendants in the case.

“If people aren’t allowed to engage in survival while living outside by having things like a blanket and a pillow, or a tarp and a sleeping bag, and they don’t have anywhere else to go, they can die,” he said.

The case, the most consequential on homelessness in decades, comes amid widespread public frustration over the proliferation of homeless encampments — especially in Western cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Phoenix, and Portland, Oregon — and the unsafe and unsanitary conditions that often fester around them.

An estimated 653,100 people were homeless in the United States in 2023, according to the most recent federal estimates, the vast majority residing in shanties, broken-down recreational vehicles, and sprawling tent camps scattered across urban and rural communities.

The Oregon city of Grants Pass, at the center of the legal battle, successfully argued that it was not cruel and unusual punishment to fine and arrest homeless people living outdoors or illegally camping on public property.

Mike Zacchino, a spokesperson for Grants Pass, issued a statement Friday that the city was “grateful” to receive the decision and is committed to assisting residents struggling to find stable housing. Theane Evangelis, the city’s lead attorney, told the Supreme Court in April that if it couldn’t enforce its anticamping laws, “the city’s hands will be tied. It will be forced to surrender its public spaces.”

In the majority opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch argued that the homelessness crisis is complex and has many causes, writing, “With encampments dotting neighborhood sidewalks, adults and children in these communities are sometimes forced to navigate around used needles, human waste, and other hazards to make their way to school, the grocery store, or work.”

However, Gorsuch wrote, the Eighth Amendment does not give the Supreme Court justices primary responsibility “for assessing those causes and devising those responses.” A handful of federal judges cannot “begin to ‘match’ the collective wisdom the American people possess in deciding ‘how best to handle’ a pressing social question like homelessness,” he wrote.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the decision focuses on the needs of local government and “leaves the most vulnerable in our society with an impossible choice: Either stay awake or be arrested.”

Elected officials, both Republican and Democrat, have increasingly argued that life on the streets is making people sick — and they should be allowed to relocate people for health and safety.

“If government offers people help and they can’t or won’t accept it, there should be consequences. We have laws that need to be used,” said Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who is an adviser to California Gov. Gavin Newsom on homelessness, referencing laws that allow the state to require mental health and addiction treatment, for instance.

The high court decision could further embolden cities to sweep encampments and could force homeless people to be more transient — constantly moving around to evade law enforcement. Sometimes they’re offered shelter, but often there is nowhere to go. Steinberg believes many cities will more aggressively sweep encampments and keep homeless people on the move, but he does not believe they should be fined or arrested.

“I’m comfortable telling people that you can’t camp in public, but I would not criminalize it,” he said. “Some cities will fine and arrest people.”

Advocates for homeless people say constant relocations will further imperil the health of this population and magnify public health threats, such as the spread of communicable diseases. They fear conservative-leaning communities will criminalize street camping, pushing homeless people to liberal municipalities that provide housing assistance and services.

“Some cities have decided that they want to fine, arrest, and punish people for being homeless, and the majority opinion tells communities that they can go ahead and do that,” said Steve Berg, chief policy officer for the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “If communities really want less homelessness, they need to do what works, which is make sure people have access to housing and supportive services.”

As they disperse and relocate — and possibly get arrested or slapped with fines — they will lose connections to the doctors and nurses who provide primary and specialty care on the streets, some health care experts say.

“It just is going to contribute to more death and higher mortality rates,” said Jim O’Connell, the president of Boston’s Health Care for the Homeless Program and an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. “It’s tough, because there’s a public safety versus public health” debate cities are struggling with.

As homeless people become sicker, they will get more expensive to treat, O’Connell said.

“Stop thinking about the emergency room, which is cheap compared to what we actually see, which is homeless people being admitted to the ICU,” he said. “I’ve got 20-something patients at Mass General today taking a huge amount of money to care for.”

In Los Angeles, which has one of the biggest homeless populations in America, street medicine provider Brett Feldman predicts more patients will need emergency intensive care as chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease go untreated.

Patients on anti-addiction medication or those undergoing treatment to improve their mental health will also struggle, he said.

“People are already getting moved and camps swept all the time, so we already know what happens,” Feldman said. “People lose their medications; they lose track of us.”

Homeless people die at rates two to six times higher than residents living in stable housing, according to a May report from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. Drug overdoses and coronary artery disease were the top two causes of death since 2017.

Feldman said it may become harder to house people or place them into treatment programs.

“We rely on knowing where they are in order to find them,” Feldman said. “And they rely on us knowing where they are to get their health care. And if we can’t find them, often they can’t complete their housing paperwork and they don’t get inside.”

The Biden administration has pushed states to expand the definition of health care to include housing. At least 19 are directing money from Medicaid — the state-federal health insurance program for low-income people — into housing aid.

California is going the biggest, pumping $12 billion into an ambitious Medicaid initiative largely to help homeless patients find housing, pay for it, and avoid eviction. It is also dramatically expanding street medicine services.

The Supreme Court decision could interrupt these programs, said Margot Kushel, a primary care doctor and homelessness researcher at the University of California-San Francisco.

“Now you’re going to see disconnections from those case managers and housing navigators and people just losing touch in the chaos and the shuffle,” she said. “What’s worse, though, is we are going to lose the trust that is so essential to getting people to take their medications or stop their drug use and, ultimately, getting people into housing.”

Kushel said the ruling would make homelessness worse. “Just having fines and jail time makes it easier for a landlord to reject you for housing,” she said.

At the same time, Americans are increasingly frustrated by encampments spreading into neighborhoods, ringing public parks, and popping up near schools. The spread is marked by more trash, dirty needles, rats, and human excrement on sidewalks.

Local leaders across deep-blue California welcomed the decision from the conservative majority, which will allow them to fine and arrest homeless people, even if there’s nowhere for them to go. “The Supreme Court today took decisive action that will ultimately make our communities safer,” said Graham Knaus, CEO of the California State Association of Counties.

Newsom, a Democrat who leads a state with nearly 30% of the nation’s homeless population, said the decision gives state and local officials “the definitive authority to implement and enforce policies to clear unsafe encampments from our streets,” ending legal ambiguity that has “tied the hands of local officials for years and limited their ability to deliver on common-sense measures to protect the safety and well-being of communities.”

This article was produced by KFF Health News, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation. 

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.

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