“Supreme Court Upholds Public Camping Laws: Implications for Vehicle Residency and Homelessness”

Supreme Court Upholds Public Camping Laws: Implications for Vehicle Residency and Homelessness


The Supreme Court decision in City of Grants Pass v. Johnson upholds that enforcing laws against public camping, potentially including those living in vehicles on public property, does not violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment.

In a pivotal decision, the Supreme Court has ruled in City of Grants Pass v. Johnson that enforcing laws against public camping does not violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. This ruling could have profound implications for the thousands of Americans who use vehicles as their primary residences, commonly known as vehicle residents or the vehicularly housed.

The case originated in Grants Pass, Oregon, a city where approximately 600 individuals are estimated to be homeless on any given day. Like many cities across the nation, Grants Pass has enacted ordinances that prohibit camping on public property, which can include sleeping in vehicles parked in public areas. The decision overturns lower court findings that deemed such enforcement as cruel and unusual, particularly when no alternative shelter options are available.

Justice Neil Gorsuch, writing for the majority, argued that the Eighth Amendment addresses the nature of punishments post-conviction and is not a suitable tool for dictating local policies on homelessness. The ruling asserts that the constitutionality of anti-camping laws hinges on their enforcement not being inherently cruel or unusual, rather than on the availability of shelter beds.

For those living in vehicles, this decision underscores a challenging reality: local ordinances that restrict sleeping or camping in public spaces can be enforced without constitutional conflict, even when individuals have nowhere else to go. This poses significant challenges for vehicle residents, who often turn to their cars or vans out of necessity, due to the lack of affordable housing or available shelter spaces.

The implications are significant and multifaceted:

  1. Increased Enforcement: Cities may feel emboldened by this ruling to strictly enforce anti-camping laws, potentially leading to more citations, fines, or even arrests for vehicle residents.
  2. Policy Shifts: Local governments might need to balance enforcement with the development of supportive policies that address the underlying issues of homelessness, such as increasing access to affordable housing or temporary shelters that accommodate vehicle residents.
  3. Legal Challenges: While the Supreme Court has set a clear precedent, variations in local enforcement and the specifics of ordinances could still open the door for further legal challenges, particularly concerning the definition of “public space” and what constitutes “camping.”

This decision is a call to action for policymakers, advocates, and communities to engage in more nuanced discussions about homelessness and public space use. It also serves as a critical reminder of the complexities involved in addressing homelessness, pushing for a broader dialogue on how best to support those who, by circumstance, find themselves living in a vehicle.

As cities across the U.S. grapple with growing homeless populations and the visibility of vehicle residency, City of Grants Pass v. Johnson will likely serve as a key reference point in ongoing debates about the rights of the unhoused and the responsibilities of local governments. It’s a pivotal moment that could reshape the landscape of urban policy and civil rights for years to come.

What can we do?

GET ORGANIZED: The National Homelessness Law Center condemns the Supreme Court’s decision allowing cities to arrest or fine homeless individuals for sleeping in public, calling it expensive, counterproductive, and inhumane. READ THEIR FULL STATEMENT. The Center finds support in Justice Sotomayor’s dissent and urges the Biden administration and Congress to invest $356 billion annually in housing solutions, including universal rental assistance, public housing repair, the National Housing Trust Fund, eviction prevention, and supportive services. Emphasizing that housing justice is essential for racial justice, the Center calls for immediate action and invites supporters to join a mass organizing call at 10 AM PST/1 PM EST on Monday. Click here to RSVP.

John Threlkeld from the National Alliance to End Homelessness has sent an email encouraging support for a Congressional sign-on letter to the President, advocating for alternatives to the criminalization of homelessness. The effort is being led by Senator Wyden in the Senate and Representative Bonamici in the House. The letter emphasizes the ineffectiveness and negative consequences of criminalizing homelessness, such as worsening the crisis and adding barriers to stable housing and employment for those affected. Instead of focusing on punitive measures, the letter urges investment in housing, health care, and supportive services as more humane and cost-effective solutions. It aims to align stakeholders across various sectors by demonstrating a unified approach to ending homelessness through housing and support rather than criminal penalties.

To request that your Senators and Representatives sign on to the bicameral letter to the President in support of alternatives to criminalization of homelessness, an individual can take the following steps:

  1. Identify Your Senators and Representatives: Find out who your Senators and Representatives are. You can use the U.S. Senate website and the U.S. House of Representatives website to locate them.
  2. Prepare Your Request: Draft a concise and respectful message explaining why you believe your Senators and Representatives should support the letter. Highlight the key points from the email:
    • Criminalization of homelessness is ineffective and worsens the problem.
    • Alternatives such as investments in affordable housing, healthcare, and supportive services are more humane and cost-effective.
    • The letter is a bipartisan effort led by Senator Wyden and Representative Bonamici.
  3. Include Contact Information for Senate and House Staff: In your message, mention the staff contacts provided in the email:
  4. Send Your Request: Use email, phone calls, or official contact forms on your Senators’ and Representatives’ websites to send your message.

Here is a sample email template:

Subject: Please Sign On to the Bicameral Letter to the President on Alternatives to Criminalization of Homelessness

Dear [Senator/Representative] [Last Name],

I hope this message finds you well. I am writing to request that you sign on to the bicameral letter to the President in support of proven and positive alternatives to the criminalization of homelessness.

The criminalization of homelessness, such as fining or arresting individuals for sleeping in public spaces when no adequate shelter is available, has been shown to be ineffective and counterproductive. Instead, investing in affordable housing, healthcare measures, and supportive services can provide more humane and cost-effective solutions to this pressing issue.

This bipartisan effort is led by Senator Wyden and Representative Bonamici, with staff contacts Madison Moskowitz (Madison_Moskowitz@wyden.senate.gov) and Andrew Dunn (Andrew.Dunn@mail.house.gov), respectively.

I urge you to join this important initiative to promote compassionate and effective policies for addressing homelessness.

Thank you for your consideration.

[Your Name]
[Your Address]
[City, State, ZIP Code]
[Your Email]
[Your Phone Number]