A Closer Look

A monthly in-depth look at issues affecting people experiencing homelessness and the broader Health Care for the Homeless community

Cruel and Unusual Punishment

By Barbara DiPietro, Senior Director of Policy

In Grants Pass, Ore., there is a law that bans camping in public — and the law defines a campsite as any place that has bedding like a sleeping bag or pillow. This means that, despite no housing and no shelter, folks living outside get tickets of up to $300 for sleeping outside. 

Homeless folks in Grants Pass — like Gloria Johnson — are fighting back. 

On Monday, April 22, the Supreme Court will determine whether the City of Grants Pass violated Gloria Johnson’s 8th Amendment right to be protected against “cruel and unusual punishment” when states criminalize the presence of human beings in public spaces. Their decision — expected to be issued at the end of June — will impact everyone living unsheltered (now and in the future) throughout the United States. At its core, this case will decide whether cities are allowed to punish people for things like sleeping outside with a pillow or blanket, even when there are no safe shelter options.

A finding in favor of Gloria Johnson will mean jurisdictions across the country will no longer be able to use jails or fines to punish people for simply existing in public spaces when they have nowhere else to go. However, a ruling in favor of Grants Pass will give cities and states permission to punish people who are forced to sleep outside, even when they have no other safe option. This is a big deal.

The folks who are advocating for Grants Pass are also those who promote criminalization and encampment bans as a public policy strategy. There are now statewide bans against camping in Florida and Tennessee, and — even more cruelly — a law in Kentucky is about to pass that allows killing people simply for being on private property. Organizations like the Cicero Institute are promoting model legislation in state legislatures across the country to not only criminalize homelessness, but also to redirect public funding away from housing and into internment camps and institutionalization

Unlike those at Cicero, the HCH Community regularly sees the harms caused by the way most encampment sweeps are conducted, clearly understands how cruel and unusual it is to sweep/arrest poor people for being unhoused, and understands that housing is the only compassionate solution to homelessness. I think the HCH Community also understands how cruel and unusual it is to blame poor folks for the public policy choices made by elected officials that create homelessness faster than we can end it. 

How to draw attention to and build power around this case: 

Important advocacy point: Even if the Supreme Court says it is LEGAL to arrest someone for sleeping on the street, doesn’t mean jurisdictions MUST or SHOULD take these actions. Let’s continue to advocate for permanent housing as a solution to homelessness, and push back against laws that shift systemic policy failures onto the shoulders of unhoused people. 

The entire national homelessness advocacy community will continue reporting on this case. Watch for the Supreme Court decision to be issued by the end of June. 

Photo by Micahel Coghlan

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