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June 20, 2024

Ask the expert: US Supreme Court to rule on homeless encampments

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on City of Grants Pass, Oregon v. Johnson, which concerns laws regulating camping on public property that could drastically affect the rights people have when experiencing homelessness. It will address the issue of whether laws punishing homeless individuals for sleeping outdoors with basic protections such as a pillow or blanket, when no safe and accessible shelter options are available, violate the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This amendment protects against excessive bail, fines and cruel and unusual punishment.


Deyanira Nevarez Martínez is an assistant professor in the Urban and Regional Planning Program in the School of Planning, Design and Construction in the colleges of Agriculture and Natural Resources and Social Science. Nevarez Martínez’s expertise focuses on the role of the state in homelessness and housing precarity and informality. In fact, she was part of a group of social scientists who submitted an amicus brief with peer-reviewed research on homelessness in support of the plaintiffs.

Headshot of Deyanira Nevarez Martínez.
Deyanira Nevarez Martínez is an assistant professor in the colleges of Agriculture and Natural Resources and Social Science.

Her research in Southern California explicitly demonstrates how local enforcement of anti-homeless ordinances not only fails to resolve but also intensifies the plight of the unhoused by stripping away their dignity and autonomy.

Nevarez Martínez answers questions about the case ahead of the ruling.

If the court rules to eliminate encampments, what are the implications?

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of the city of Grants Pass, it could exacerbate homelessness by criminalizing unsheltered homelessness even when there is no available shelter. This would result in more people with criminal records, making it harder for them to find jobs and housing, and forcing them to deal with legal issues rather than addressing personal barriers. Jails are dangerous for unhoused people and may be worse than living on the streets.

Additionally, people would lose crucial community ties. Criminalizing homelessness also increases conflict and hampers community efforts to address the issue, as it pits people against each other instead of encouraging collaboration.

By ruling in favor of the unsheltered individuals who brought the case, the court would affirm that everyone in the community is valued and that the legitimate role of local government is to ensure decent conditions for all, rather than targeting certain individuals for incarceration or exclusion. 

If the court rules to allow homeless encampments when there are no other shelter options available, what are the implications?

If the court rules to allow homeless encampments when there are no other shelter options available, the implications could be profound. This ruling would set a significant legal precedent, affirming that cities cannot criminalize homelessness when there are no available shelter options, impacting numerous municipalities across the ninth circuit and, potentially, throughout the country and requiring them to adjust their policies and practices. It would recognize and protect the human rights and dignity of homeless individuals, fostering a societal shift toward more compassionate and humane approaches to homelessness.

Cities might need to reevaluate their policies and resources, increasing funding for shelters, affordable housing and support services to provide viable alternatives to encampments. Concerns about public health and safety could arise, necessitating strategies to manage encampments, including sanitation, health care and security services. The economic implications could be significant, with potential increases in costs associated with providing necessary services or developing permanent housing solutions, though this will lead to long-term savings by reducing the strain on emergency services and health care systems.

This decision could influence community relations, requiring cities to facilitate dialogues and create policies that address the concerns of all stakeholders while upholding the rights of the unhoused population.

Ultimately, this ruling could push for more sustainable and long-term solutions to homelessness, emphasizing the importance of addressing root causes such as lack of affordable housing, mental health services and employment opportunities, necessitating a comprehensive and multifaceted approach involving collaboration between government agencies, nonprofits and the community.

Is the number of people living in homeless encampments on the rise?

While not all individuals experiencing unsheltered homelessness reside in encampments, encampments have really become emblematic of the rise of unsheltered homelessness in the United States. In particular, as the number of unsheltered individuals continues to increase, the problem is most acute in major cities on the West Coast and in the markets that have seen major spikes in housing prices. However, now you see that this issue has even become prevalent in rural areas and cities that we’ve traditionally thought of as affordable.

Based on your research, what are the public perceptions of encampments?

Research indicates that public perceptions of urban encampments are generally negative. So, with encampments being viewed as problematic by residents and businesses, the perception often leads to support of policies that criminalize homelessness, despite evidence that such policies do not effectively address the root causes of homelessness or reduce its prevalence. These perceptions are often influenced by concerns over safety and the visibility of homelessness. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that social science research with unhoused communities has consistently shown that punitive approaches to homelessness only exacerbates their vulnerability and entrenches them deeper into cycles of poverty and marginalization. 

Why do people remain in encampments even when other forms of shelter are available?

Individuals may find it less stressful to remain in a more controlled and familiar outdoor setting. Shelters may have restrictive rules, such as curfews, and may not accommodate individuals’ specific circumstances, such as having a partner or a pet or needing to store personal belongings. In addition, some shelters may require participation in religious services and other activities, which may not align with an individual’s beliefs or needs, or even accept their identity. For example, LGBTQIA+ folks are not welcome in these shelters, and so they feel very unsafe in those spaces or may not even be able to disclose their identity while being there. 

Do those in encampments contribute to increases in crime, drug abuse or communicable diseases?

While the research indicates that there are some associations between homeless encampments and increased visibility of crime, drug abuse and communicable disease, the real issue causing these situations is not the encampment. It’s the lack of stable housing and support services for the community. And so, the enforcement of anti-homeless laws can contribute to increased victimization and crime within encampments by disrupting the established security and social support services system. Forced relocation can really hinder access to things like health care and sanitation, contributing to the spread of communicable disease, for example.

What happens to the people when government disbands encampments?

When local governments clear out encampments, the displaced individuals often end up moving to other nearby public spaces because we don’t have housing for them and we don’t have shelter oftentimes either. And so, this leads to a cycle of relocation without resolving the underlying issues again. This process is known as spatial churn. And it results in people frequently moving between different areas while remaining homeless. And so, this displacement forces individuals to move to new, often more hazardous locations than where they started. These areas pose great risks for traffic accidents and environmental hazards — and expose the unhoused individuals to the elements. And as climate change gets worse, the conditions can be a real problem in terms of heat exposure, flooding and hurricanes. 

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