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On Anti-Camping Ordinances and the Grants Pass Case

According to an annual report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), 653,100 Americans experienced homelessness on a single night in 2023—the highest this number has been since this report began in 2007, and a 12% increase from 2022. Of this number, 40% experienced unhoused homelessness, meaning that they did not reside in any shelter, transitional housing or safe haven program. The homelessness crisis demands intelligent, people-oriented policy solutions, which cities across America are failing to provide—case in point: Grants Pass, Oregon.


Three homeless Americans filed a class action lawsuit against Grants Pass in 2018 over its ordinances prohibiting camping out on public property, arguing that the ordinances are inhumane. In the ordinances, the city defines a campsite as "any place where bedding, sleeping bag or other material used for bedding purposes, or any stove or fire is placed." Violators risk a $295 fine, but repeated violations can lead to a $1,250 fine and jail time. The case rose to the Supreme Court in April when it heard oral arguments for Grants Pass, Oregon vs. Gloria Johnson. The court’s decision will have wide-reaching implications on how communities handle their growing homeless populations.


The case questions the constitutionality of anti-camping ordinances like the ones in Grants Pass. Grants Pass does not have enough shelter beds for its homeless population, and sleep is a physical need—the original plaintiffs argued that these ordinances effectively punish the homeless population's existence. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2018 that enforcing anti-camping ordinances when there are insufficient beds for a city’s homeless was unconstitutional, violating the Cruel and Unusual Punishment clause of the Eighth Amendment. It is this precedent that the Supreme Court will either overturn or reinforce in the Grants Pass case.


Many cities, as well as the state of California, have filed amicus briefs arguing that the 9th Circuit’s decision was too broad, restricting their ability to tackle the homelessness crisis and resulting in massive encampments overtaking public spaces with little restriction. Furthermore, some Supreme Court justices voiced concern for the insertion of the federal court in municipal policy-making regarding homelessness. Chief Justice John Roberts, during the oral arguments, pointed to the “competing priorities” of municipalities, asking, “Why would you think that these nine people are the best people to judge and weigh those policy judgments?” 


Yet that is the reality of policy-making on all levels of government. There will always be finite resources and an excess of issues requiring creativity and forethought from officials to solve. If homelessness demands legislation, then the government should seek to abolish homelessness instead of punishing homeless people. This kind of enforced displacement also has a plethora of negative impacts. For instance, research shows that forcibly taking down homeless encampments can drive people to more isolated, less visible spaces where they have reduced access to health outreach, support systems and other resources. Negative interactions with law enforcement also often create a distrust of authority, leading to increased reluctance to seek formal support. 


It is true that the growing homelessness crisis makes it only that much more daunting and expensive for cities to tackle. Yet, studies have shown that criminalizing homelessness is actually more expensive than providing supportive housing. One report looking at homelessness in Central Florida found that the expenses related to this criminalization totaled $31,065 per homeless person while providing supportive housing would have cost an average of $10,051 per person. The think tank Urban Institute also points out that dispatching community response teams—including medical and mental health crisis workers—to encampments can help more efficiently and cost-effectively address public safety issues.


Anti-camping ordinances are a shortsighted means of addressing homelessness, eschewing empathetic problem-solving in favor of cruel expediency. Addressing the homelessness crisis requires a prioritization of human rights, and this begins with a Supreme Court recognition of anti-camping ordinances as unconstitutional in their criminalization of people’s existence and status. 


Acknowledgment: The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the individual author. 

3 Comments


Hi Ella,

Your piece was very well written and the argument you made for why the homelessness crisis should be met with empathetic and people-oriented legislation rather than cruel legislation was done so well. I agree that policies addressing the crisis should also seek to address homelessness and not punish homelessness because most Americans are living paycheck to paycheck and all it takes is one hospital visit or one car accident to land us in that situation. I love that you mentioned how much more expensive it would be to criminalize homelessness than to just provide housing... it really puts into perspective the priorities of law makers who initially put into place the grants pass.

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I find it interesting that even those in favor of a cost-effective solution have to acknowledge that the current solutions are ineffective. It's cheaper to support than criminalize. Even so, we see no real ground to rectify our methods.

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Ellie Bai
Ellie Bai
May 29

Hi Ella,


I agree that anti-camping ordinances may fail to adequately address the homelessness issue, especially if the goal is to help homeless individuals improve their living standards and protect their well-being. The removal of camps as a result of  these ordinances does not necessarily mean the severity of homelessness has been alleviated. In fact, losing camping as an option might further undermine their well-being and safety, which goes against the goals of any people-oriented approaches. Addressing the underlying causes of homelessnesstends to be a more effective and humane way of tackling the issue, as mentioned in your article.

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