A Supreme Ruling?

In Grants Pass, Oregon, a town of just under 40,000 people, it is now illegal to be homeless. Or, at least, that’s what was being argued in the recent Supreme Court case of Johnson v. Grants Pass. In 2013, the town passed an ordinance against using blankets, pillows, or even cardboard boxes while sitting or sleeping on public property. It also banned parking overnight in a city park. The ordinance imposed a $295 fine that increased to over $500 if not paid. Receiving two violations in a 1-year period led to banning an individual from city property for 30 days, violations of which would lead to charges of criminal trespassing charges that come with 30 days in jail and a fine of $1250. 

The ordinance was struck down by several lower courts under the premise that the fines were considered Cruel and Unusual Punishment since the city did not have sufficient emergency shelter to meet the needs of the homeless population. It was argued that since homeless residents didn’t have a place to live, they were being fined for their status as homeless. Grants Pass does not operate an emergency shelter. There is a private shelter that has 30 beds for men and 16 beds for women and children. Residents must have an ID, cannot use nicotine, and are not allowed to bring service animals. These restrictions and limited space leave many without a place to go.  

The Supreme Court heard arguments in April and ruled in June in favor of the city. The decision was reversed and remanded back to the lower courts for judgement. In the majority opinion, the Supreme Court ruled that the punishments did not qualify as cruel and unusual punishment because the fines were limited and not designed to superadd “terror, pain, or disgrace” and are among “the usual modes” for punishing criminal offenses throughout the country.  

The dissenting opinion, three judges argued that they had no issues with ordinances that banned the use of tents or that protected public health and safety such as littering, public urination, harassment or obstruction of roadways. These justices argued that the ordinance criminalizes the status of being homeless.  

The courts have long upheld the notion that individuals can only be punished for behavior, not status. In the case of Robinson v. California, the court ruled that the state could not convict and incarcerate someone merely for being addicted to narcotics, but could utilize those tools for the behavior of possessing or selling narcotics. In this case, the dissenting justices argued that sleep is a biological necessity and that by making it illegal to sleep on private or public property, the ordinance ensures that the only way for homeless individuals to comply with the ordinance is to leave the city. 

While the broader ramifications of this ruling are unclear, we know that fines and criminal records won’t solve the issue of homelessness. Record high rental prices have put even more households at risk of homelessness as inflation has driven up prices on nearly everything and protections created during the COVID-19 pandemic have ended.  

“Homelessness is the result of a nationwide affordable housing crisis so that’s what we need to solve.”  

-Eric Samuels, president and CEO of Texas Homeless Network 

Here in the Concho Valley, we are working together to find solutions to the issue that meet our homeless neighbors where they are and maintain public safety. During the coldest months of the year, the Concho Valley Homeless Planning Coalition (CVHPC) worked with the City of San Angelo and the Salvation Army to provide hotel rooms or cots when the temperatures dropped to dangerous levels. CVHPC continues to work with the City of San Angelo to create long-term solutions that not only provide shelter, but also help our neighbors with the resources that can move them closer to self-sufficiency.  

At CVCAA, our promise states that “We care about the entire community” and that includes our homeless neighbors. We will continue to seek programs and solutions that bring dignity and hope to everyone in the Concho Valley. 

Supreme Court opinions: https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/23pdf/23-175_19m2.pdf