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A person sleeps on a Los Angeles sidewalk on Tuesday, April 9, 2024. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily ɫ̳/SCNG)
A person sleeps on a Los Angeles sidewalk on Tuesday, April 9, 2024. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily ɫ̳/SCNG)
Clara Harter
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The Supreme Court of the United States is that could rewrite the rules for how municipalities across America address and have dramatic ramifications for California, where almost 30% of the nation’s homeless reside.

The case, City of Grants Pass v. Johnson, centers on whether homeless people have a right to camp in public.

The town of Grants Pass in Oregon is fighting to uphold its ban on camping at any place or time in the city, regardless of shelter availability—a policy its leaders say is necessary to keep streets and parks clear of encampments and preserve public safety.

The plaintiffs are individuals who have been fined or arrested under the city’s policy. They are arguing that the camping ban equates to a ban on the status of being homeless and violates their constitutional right to freedom from cruel and unusual punishment.

Silahi Lorthridge burns a fire outside his tent in Skid Row on Friday morning, Feb. 16, 2024. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily ɫ̳/SCNG)
Silahi Lorthridge burns a fire outside his tent in Skid Row on Friday morning, Feb. 16, 2024. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily ɫ̳/SCNG)

The justices heard oral arguments earlier this week and are expected to deliver a ruling by late June.

But how exactly will this impact Southern California?

For starters, a ruling in favor of Grants Pass could prompt other cities to adopt a similar policy, said USC law professor Clare Pastore.

“If the court upholds what Grants Pass wants—which is to go ahead and criminalize sleeping in public at all places in your town, regardless of whether you have shelter available—it’s conceivable that some jurisdictions would say, ‘Great, that’s what we’re going to do, we’re going to make it a crime to sleep anywhere,’” she said.

More conservative municipalities in Southern California may be more likely to adopt this approach, potentially pushing homeless people into more liberal cities like Los Angeles where leaders , she added.

On the opposite end of possible outcomes, a strong ruling against the city of Grants Pass could solidify the right of homeless people to camp in public without restriction.

Some advocates believe that would be a positive result, ending the criminalization of sleeping in public and driving investments in other such as permanent supportive housing.

“It’s time for municipalities like Grants Pass, and others like it, to embrace evidence-based approaches to reducing homelessness and stop relying on these punitive responses that don’t work and only serve to make the homelessness crisis worse,” said Valerie Comenencia Ortiz, attorney at Relman Colfax, who filed an amicus brief on behalf of 226 homeless services providers to support the plaintiffs in City of Grants Pass v. Johnson.

Others feel that such a ruling would go too far and prevent cities from protecting the safety and cleanliness of its public spaces.

A boy is walking in the street, on his way to Esperanza School, because a homeless encampment has taken over the sidewalk on Burlington Avenue in Los Angeles on Tuesday, April 9, 2024. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily ɫ̳/SCNG
A boy is walking in the street, on his way to Esperanza School, because a homeless encampment has taken over the sidewalk on Burlington Avenue in Los Angeles on Tuesday, April 9, 2024. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily ɫ̳/SCNG

“Encampments are unsanitary and unsafe, and we have built public spaces for certain uses — like to bring your kids to the park to play or to walk along the street to get where you’re trying to go,” said Sen. Catherine Blakespear, D-Encinitas. “We shouldn’t have every public space be a living space.”

What Blakespear and many officials are hoping for is a middle ground ruling that does not criminalize people merely because they are homeless and need to sleep in public, but provides guidelines on the time, place and manner of restrictions that cities can place upon camping in public.

Currently, it is not clear how Southern California’s cities are allowed to regulate camping.

The legal precedent is a 2018 Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling, which says that people camping in public cannot be forced to move unless the city has shelter available.

However, the ruling does not define what constitutes available shelter. This has led to a patchwork series of anti-camping rules in different municipalities and challenging those rules.

Gov. Gavin ɫ̳om, San Francisco Mayor London Breed and L.A. City Attorney Hydee Feldstein Soto are among the many leaders who to take up City of Grants Pass v. Johnson in hopes of getting more clarity.

“A deeply divided Ninth Circuit delivered an opinion that purports to be ‘narrow,’ but its terms are so sweeping, ambiguous, and ill-defined that the result is intolerable uncertainty for the policies, options, and continuing efforts to resolve homelessness in the City of Los Angeles and elsewhere,” wrote Feldstein Soto in an amicus brief in support of hearing the case.

Other Los Angeles officials however, did not want the Supreme Court to take up the Grants Pass case for fear that it would lead to a ruling in favor of harsh anti-camping restrictions.

“The Grants Pass case would further enable cities to push people from community to community, without a commitment to housing or services,” said L.A. County Supervisor Lindsey Horvath in a February statement. “Relying on this case is not a solution to homelessness.”

Nevertheless, justices selected Grants Pass v. Johnson as one of the 100 to 150 cases they would consider this year and are expected to deliver a ruling by late June.

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