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Cities are asking the Supreme Court for more power to clear homeless encampments

A decision five years ago transformed homelessness policy. Now the justices could overrule it.

A person walks past a homeless encampment
A homeless encampment near a Target store in Los Angeles, California. State and local lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, are seeking to overturn lower court decisions that currently block their power to clear encampments with unhoused people. 
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Rachel M. Cohen is a senior reporter for Vox covering social policy. She focuses on housing, schools, labor, criminal justice, and abortion rights, and has been reporting on these issues for more than a decade.

In 2018, a federal court issued a consequential decision about homelessness in America: People without housing can’t be punished for sleeping or camping outside on public property if there are no adequate shelter alternatives available.

The Ninth Circuit’s decision, Martin v. Boise, said that punishing homeless people with no other place to go would violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Ever since, cities and states have struggled to comply with it, crafting convoluted policies like a new camping ban in Portland, Oregon that prohibits homeless camping during the hours of 8 am to 8 pm.

As municipal backlash to Martin grew, so has the nation’s homelessness crisis, especially in the nine Western states under the Ninth Circuit’s jurisdiction, where some 42 percent of the country’s homeless population now lives.

The Supreme Court declined to hear Martin in 2019. But they now could reconsider the decision. A petition was filed in late August concerning a similar case in Grants Pass, Oregon, a city of 38,000 people. In 2022, the Ninth Circuit decided it would be unconstitutional for Grants Pass to fine homeless people sleeping on public property if there was nowhere else for them to go. The city is challenging that decision.

The Supreme Court hasn’t indicated whether it will hear this significant case, a step it will likely take at the end of this year or early next. Supporters of the Martin decision say there’s no reason the high court should take up the request, as there’s no clear disagreement among circuit courts to resolve. In the half-decade since Martin came down, there have been dozens of cases affirming it, including in the Fourth Circuit in Virginia, and federal lower courts in Ohio, Missouri, Florida, Texas, New York, and Hawaii.

But a bipartisan coalition of cities and states is pressuring the Supreme Court to intervene. In the last month, dozens of local governments have filed briefs pleading with the court to reconsider Martin, including liberal cities like Los Angeles, Honolulu, and Seattle.

Some in the court system have also signaled they’d like to see the case overruled. This summer, when the full Ninth Circuit declined to review the Grants Pass v. Johnson decision issued by a three-judge panel in 2022, 16 judges dissented, arguing both cases were incorrectly decided. “Martin handcuffed local jurisdictions as they tried to respond to the homelessness crisis; Grants Pass now places them in a straitjacket,” one dissent read. A state judge in Arizona also recently urged the Supreme Court to take up the matter, arguing Martin and Grants Pass bothtie the hands of cities that seek in good faith to address the growing homeless encampment epidemic.”

California’s Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom also filed a brief in August urging the Supreme Court to reconsider the cases. While Newsom insisted he is not objecting to the “narrow” Martin decision that people experiencing homelessness should not be criminalized for sleeping outside when they have nowhere else to go, the governor argued cities need more clarity on implementation, and that lower courts have interpreted Martin too broadly.

Despite Newsom saying that he’s not seeking to overturn Martin wholesale, homeless advocates say this is naive at best, since that’s what the lawyers representing Grant Pass are asking to do.

“Newsom and the other briefs that aren’t asking for a full overturn of Martin — just clarity around some of these restrictions — are fooling themselves, perhaps willfully so, and are being willfully ignorant of the consequences of their involvement,” Eric Tars, the legal director for the National Homelessness Law Center, told Vox. “The petitioners in this case are asking for a full overturn, that’s the question they have presented to the Court and that’s what they’ll be arguing for.”

Theane Evangelis, a Gibson Dunn attorney and lead counsel for the city of Grants Pass, told Vox they do believe Martin and Grants Pass are “legally wrong” and “are hopeful the Supreme Court will grant review and undo these harmful decisions.”

The Grants Pass v. Johnson case is about whether it violates the Eighth Amendment to fine or arrest unhoused people

Five years ago, about six weeks after the Martin decision was decided, three homeless individuals filed a federal class-action lawsuit against Grants Pass, Oregon, arguing that the city’s laws and customs — like its anti-camping ordinance — punished them for their status of being involuntarily homeless.

The lead plaintiff was Debra Blake, who had been experiencing homelessness for about a decade and was continually racking up hundreds of dollars in fines and fees for sleeping outside and allegedly trespassing. By 2020, Blake owed over $5,000 in penalties for living outside. In their lawsuit, attorneys representing the plaintiffs noted the dearth of affordable housing and homeless shelters in the city, and blasted Grants Pass’s arguments that unhoused people could simply leave and go elsewhere. Blake died a year later at 62, and so the case was renamed for another homeless plaintiff, Gloria Johnson.

In 2022, a three-judge panel from the Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of the homeless plaintiffs.

Opponents of the decision argued Grants Pass marked a radical expansion of Martin, since the Oregon city had issued civil penalties to unhoused people, not criminal ones. Some also alleged that Grants Pass created even further confusion for local governments, since the Ninth Circuit held that a Christian homeless shelter that had strict rules like mandatory church attendance could not be counted as available shelter in Grants Pass due to potential violations of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. Many cities have only religious shelters or rely heavily on them.

Supporters of the Grants Pass ruling say it neither expanded Martin nor created confusion. “I see it as a clarification of Martin,” said Tars, of the National Homelessness Law Center, saying that Grants Pass clarifies “that you have to look at the collective impact of all these different ordinances — including anti-sleeping bans or rules barring being in parks after dark — that can make it illegal to exist basically anywhere in public even if they have no other place to do so.”

Ed Johnson, the director of litigation at the Oregon Law Center and the lead attorney representing the homeless plaintiffs in Grant Pass, told Vox that the decision is being greatly mischaracterized by opponents. “The opinion is exceedingly narrow and puts no limits whatsoever on a city’s ability to prevent permanent or even established encampments,” he said.

So is it a violation of the Eighth Amendment to issue tickets and fines against people experiencing homelessness?

Lawyers representing Grant Pass say no, emphasizing that enforcing local regulations should not be considered cruel and unusual punishments.

“I think the entire idea that it could constitute cruel and unusual punishment to arrest someone for sleeping on the street is incorrect,” added Timothy Sandefur, the vice president for legal affairs at the Goldwater Institute, a conservative legal advocacy group that filed a brief urging the Supreme Court to take the case. Sandefur told Vox that “it’s true” that arresting someone for a status like being homeless is wrong, but he argued it would be at most a violation of due process, not of the Eighth Amendment.

Homeless advocates in support of Martin and Grants Pass say ticketing, fining, and arresting unhoused people if they have nowhere else to go is indeed a violation of the Eighth Amendment. In a brief filed to the Ninth Circuit in support of the unhoused plaintiffs, lawyers with the Fines and Fees Justice Center argued that civil penalties frequently trap unhoused people in cycles of poverty and homelessness, ensnaring them in debt that prevents them from securing housing at all.

And given the insufficient number of shelter beds, the practical outcome of rules barring rest under a blanket on any publicly owned property or rest in a car overnight in a public park parking lot “effectively function[s] as a city-wide prohibition of homelessness” that “punish[es] their very existence.”

Overturning Martin and Grants Pass could have implications for forced treatment

As public frustration with tent encampments has grown, a movement urging a “get tough” approach has emerged, arguing that the costs of allowing tent cities to proliferate are too steep and that waiting for cities to build enough new housing before acting is unacceptable. Some argue that public officials have grown complacent with the homelessness crisis, and rely on Martin as an excuse to maintain the status quo.

In efforts to both crack down on encampments but comply with the Ninth Circuit decisions, some cities and states have pushed more punitive legislation, like bills to make camping a felony, or criminalize sleeping outdoors on public property except within designated areas. The question of whether these laws are constitutional under Martin remains an open question. Leaders recognize they probably can’t ban camping everywhere given the court rulings, but they’ve been looking to see if they can ban it in most places instead. If Martin was overturned by the Supreme Court, however, officials would likely feel much more empowered to resume city-wide anti-camping bans and prosecute those who violate them.

Tars, of the National Homelessness Law Center, said the major difference between now and five years ago is the emergence of a “concrete, well-funded movement” to criminalize homelessness, rather than a patchwork of local regulations decided by individual cities and towns. “Today there are groups actively working together, producing media, going on Fox News, to proactively push criminalization,” he told Vox. “That didn’t exist prior to Martin v. Boise.”

In a Supreme Court brief filed by the California State Sheriffs’ Association and the California Police Chiefs Association, the groups wrote “they, by no means, argue for the criminalization of the homeless” and are committed to “improving the outcomes” for unhoused people. Still, they said the “disastrous” decisions “impermissibly intrude” on their policing duties, and make it “all but impossible” to curb dangers associated with encampments.

If Martin and Grants Pass are overturned, it will not only have implications for clearing tents, but likely also for sending homeless people to substance use or psychiatric treatment programs.

In several of the briefs submitted by local governments, cities reported examples of homeless people “refusing help,” and as Vox has previously reported, the question of what to do with those who turn down offers of shelter has gotten entangled with broader, ongoing debates about involuntary treatment. As pressure to clear encampments mounts, many homeless advocates fear that new laws mandating treatment will be indiscriminately applied to those sleeping outside, and even more so if Martin and Grants Pass no longer provide a check on local governments’ behavior.

Some of the briefs filed to the Supreme Court in support of reconsidering Martin have already raised this issue. “Allowing people to live on the streets or in tents in a park is not a compassionate response to the problem,” wrote Sandefur in the Goldwater Institute’s amicus filing. “A compassionate response would consist of providing people with the care they need — including taking them into custody against their will if they are incapable of managing themselves.”

Asked about the connection between encampments and involuntary care, Sandefur told Vox these cases show that cities “are going to have to find a better solution than what they’ve been doing, which is largely ignoring the problem and hoping it goes away.”