The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear arguments in a case that will likely have broad implications for how cities, particularly on the West Coast, address the ongoing homelessness crisis. And this news comes just as the Ninth Circuit upheld an injunction that limits San Francisco's methods for clearing encampments.
As was mostly expected, the Supreme Court announced Friday that it would take up the appeal in Grants Pass, the case out of Grants Pass, Oregon in which the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of homeless plaintiffs. The case hinges on the legality of the City of Grants Pass citing homeless people for camping on public property, and the ruling, originally made in a lower court, establishes that it is illegal to criminally punish people for lacking shelter, or for making an effort to keep themselves warm or dry when lacking shelter on a city property.
Buttressing that ruling was a 2018 ruling by the Ninth Circuit in Martin v. Boise, a case out of Boise, Idaho in which the court established that, under the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment, anti-camping ordinances can not be enforced if a municipality does not have alternate shelter to offer the homeless individuals doing the camping.
The Supreme Court, with its 6-3 conservative majority, will now weigh in on whether the Eighth Amendment should apply in these instances, and on how cities should address the issue of illegal encampments and the right to shelter. As the Chronicle reports, a ruling in the case is expected by June, at the end of the high court's term.
A lawyer for the homeless plaintiffs in the Grants Pass case, Ed Johnson of the Oregon Law Center, says that the Ninth Circuit's ruling is backed up by "decades of Supreme Court precedent," and he seems confident that the court will come to the same conclusion.
And, Johnson notes, the case has been seized upon by city governments and politicians as a kind of scapegoat for their homelessness crises.
"This case is not about a city’s ability to regulate or prohibit encampments," Johnson says in a statement Friday. "That has always been permissible, is explicitly allowed under the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, and is not at issue here. Nevertheless, some politicians and others are cynically and falsely blaming the judiciary for the homelessness crisis to distract the public and deflect blame for years of failed policies."
San Francisco was among 50 city and county governments and organizations that filed amicus briefs with the Supreme Court in the Grants Pass case in September — and as many have noted, this is a rare case in which politicians on both ends of the political spectrum are hoping for the same outcome. Governor Gavin Newsom has been taking a hard line on homeless encampments in the last six months as a result of this case, and so have conservative politicians in Arizona, Oregon, and elsewhere, pointing to judges as being obstacles to sane policies about street camping.
While homelessness is certainly a major problem at a national level, it has tended to be most visible and most talked about on the West Coast in recent years. Cities like Portland, Los Angeles, Oakland, San Jose, and San Francisco have been struggling to address public-health and other concerns with sometimes sprawling encampments, and relatively temperate weather in these cities mean it is possible to live outdoors year-round — unlike in most of the Midwest and on the East Coast.
Phoenix has also had a protracted problem with an especially large encampment called The Zone last year, which was fully cleared last fall. Some of those who lived in the encampment accepted shelter, but thousands of others remained unhoused, and as the New York Times reported, the city was still lacking the thousands of units and shelter beds needed to house the homeless population, which was estimated around 9,000.
Phoenix reportedly spent $20 million to put about 600 individuals into temporary housing.
San Francisco, meanwhile, spent $672 million in the past fiscal year on services and housing for the homeless, and on a per-person basis it is likely that the city spends the most on the issue of any major city in the U.S. But would need to spend another $1.45 billion over three years, more than a third of its overall budget, to shelter its entire unhoused population, in a proposal that has seen pushback from supervisors — still, these figures made it into the city's amicus brief with the court.
In related news, on Thursday, the Ninth Circuit formally let stand an injunction imposed by a lower court that limits San Francisco's ability to clear homeless encampments — though the ruling may be somewhat moot at this point. Over a year ago, a judge in U.S. District Court, Judge Donna Ryu, issued the injunction, saying that she was more compelled by arguments by the plaintiffs in the case — the ACLU and the Coalition on Homelessness — about how encampment sweeps were carried out. While the court has yet to issue its final ruling in the case, SF appealed the injunction itself to the Ninth Circuit, and back in September the Ninth Circuit said it would not modify Ryu's injunction.
But SF City Attorney David Chiu and others interpreted the Ninth Circuit's language at that time to say that the city could continue clearing encampments and moving people off of city property so long as offers of shelter were made — the issue hinges on what defines "involuntarily homeless" if an individual refuses an offer of shelter.
The city has proceeded to clear encampments based on this interpretation, as it awaits a final ruling from the district court and/or the Supreme Court's weigh-in.
Still, the Coalition on Homelessness's attorney, John Do of the ACLU, praised the Ninth Circuit decision saying, "As the court has affirmed, San Francisco's homeless residents also have rights. The right to be free from citation and arrest for their status." (This is even though SF does not cite or arrest homeless people for being homeless.)
Gov. Gavin Newsom responded as well, saying, "This ruling reinforces the need for the United States Supreme Court to provide clarity in this space by granting review in the Grants Pass case," which the court just did.
Photo: Ian Hutchinson
This article has been updated to include the quote from Ed Johnson.