How the Grants Pass Decision Shapes Local Approaches to Homeless Encampments

The Supreme Court’s recent ruling in The City of Grants Pass, Oregon v. Johnson will allow cities to enforce ordinances against sleeping in public spaces. This decision is a welcome victory in favor of local autonomy against federal overreach. Homelessness is a local problem that requires local solutions, and this decision will allow officials to address homeless encampments according to their city’s unique needs.

Homelessness is not a crime, but many people suffering from homelessness—particularly those suffering from mental illness or substance-abuse disorder—require intervention. Far from arresting and jailing people merely for sleeping on the street, law enforcement officers have helped many formerly homeless individuals receive the help they need, often through diversion programs that keep people out of prison while ushering them into treatment programs. The Grants Pass decision prevents the federal government from impeding such policies for cities that choose to pursue them.

City governments also have a delegated authority to protect public spaces for the safety of the housed and unhoused alike. Homeless encampments are frequent sources of open-air drug use, biohazard waste, public indecency, and fires, and their presence is detrimental to nearby businesses, homeowners, and other neighborhood residents. Local authorities could not meet their responsibility to the public in addressing these issues with their hands tied by federal judges living thousands of miles away.

The majority decision in the Grants Pass case does not mandate that cities or states adopt any specific policy regarding encampments, and this is precisely what makes the ruling so important. Federal judges, however wise, lack the knowledge of local conditions necessary to crafting city policy. As different localities take different approaches to homeless encampments, we will be able to judge better which policies produce the best outcomes for the unhoused population and the public at large.

Christopher J. Calton is the Research Fellow in Housing and Homelessness at the Independent Institute. He received his Ph.D. in History at the University of Florida, where his research focused on the history of the corporation.
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