Understanding the Potential Impact of Johnson v. Grants Pass

johnson v. grants pass

A Grants Pass, Ore., police officer issues a citation to a homeless woman camped in a city park. The woman said she has been homeless for many years and has been raped three times. She said she feels safer when camped in a city park and not in isolated areas. The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the Grants Pass v Johnson April 22 in Washington, D.C. The case addresses anti-homelessness ordinances. The case asks whether the southern Oregon city may enact restrictions on sleeping in public and similar behavior, which the plaintiffs say amounts to an effective ban on being unhoused. (Credit Image: © Robin Loznak/ZUMA Press Wire)

The Johnson v. Grants Pass case, now before the Supreme Court, challenges a precedent set by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals regarding punitive measures against homelessness. It could jeopardize federal funding for homeless services, increase homelessness among incarcerated individuals, and diminish investments in homeless services, posing a significant setback in efforts to address homelessness nationwide.

The Johnson v. Grants Pass case before the Supreme Court represents a watershed moment for how cities across the U.S. address homelessness. It seeks to overturn a precedent set by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2020 that prevents cities from punitively punishing people experiencing homelessness when no shelter options are available.

This is happening at a time when more than 653,000 people experience homelessness in the U.S. on a given night, a more than 12% increase from 2023. Meanwhile, the rising cost of owning and renting a home is forcing more low-income earning households to experience housing instability than ever before, thereby increasing their risk of becoming homeless. 

To advocates, Johnson v. Grants Pass is more than a lawsuit challenging the use of fines and fees to enforce a public camping ban. It also represents a grave threat to the progress made to end homelessness once and for all.

Here are a few ways to measure the potential impact of Johnson v. Grants Pass.

Billions of Federal Funds Could Go to Waste

One of the most immediate impacts of the Johnson v. Grants Pass case could be its impact on funding for homeless services and affordable housing.

Since taking office in 2021, the Biden-Harris administration has approved billions of funds to create or preserve affordable units, increased the number of available housing vouchers, and supported local initiatives to end homelessness. For instance, the administration has:

All of this effort could go to waste if a majority of the Supreme Court justices side with lawyers from Grants Pass who argue they need to be able to punitively punish homeless people for sleeping outside. Instead of funding homelessness prevention programs, these funds would likely be used for business grants and market-rate real estate development incentives.

The Population of Homeless People in Jail Could Skyrocket

Another devastating impact the Johnson v. Grants Pass case could have is it could lead to an increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness in America’s prison system. This could dramatically expand the prison-to-homelessness pipeline that many communities across the country have worked so hard to disrupt.

Data from the Prison Policy Initiative shows that people experiencing homelessness make up at least 15% of inmates. People who have been incarcerated are also ten times more likely to experience homelessness than the general public, regardless of race, age, gender, or other demographics. 

“As law enforcement agencies aggressively enforce ‘offenses’ such as sleeping in public spaces, panhandling, and public urination – not to mention other low-level offenses that are more visible when committed in public – formerly incarcerated people are unnecessarily funneled back through the ‘revolving door,'” the Prison Policy Initiative found.

If the Supreme Court sides with Grants Pass, the decision could upend efforts to disrupt the prison-to-homelessness pipeline through policy changes and social investments. For instance, cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles have partnered with Harvard Kennedy School’s Government Performance Lab on an initiative to provide more stable rehousing services to people leaving incarceration. That includes streamlining permanent supportive housing developments and establishing a coordinated upstream homelessness prevention program.

“Cities and states of all sizes are asking how to better coordinate housing assistance within the community and how to make the subsidized housing process faster, smoother, and more effective for both households and housing partners, Carin Clary, GPL Director of Homelessness & Housing, said in a press release.

Investments in Homeless Services Would Dwindle

If cities are allowed to use punitive measures to address homelessness, local politicians will have little incentive to invest in homeless services. 

Punitive measures like arrest are popular among elected officials because they can eliminate visual homelessness. However, it does not address the underlying causes of homelessness itself.

On the other hand, homeless services work to address the root causes of homelessness. Some examples include:

  • rapid rehousing programs for people who are newly homeless
  • mental and emotional support programs for chronically homeless people
  • substance abuse treatments for those who need them

However, this approach often takes more time than punitive punishments, the only argument conservative critics levy against the approach.

The pandemic proved that cities know how to invest money toward solving homelessness. According to figures from the National Association to End Homelessness, 69% of the funding that cities received went toward housing and services that help people stay housed. It appears that these support systems have worked for a while. Princeton University’s Eviction Lab found that pandemic-era protections helped prevent more than 1.5 million evictions. Several states also saw their rates of youth homelessness decrease significantly. 

“When viewed side-by-side, investing in homeless services is a far superior approach when compared to criminalization,” NAEH Vice President of Research Joy Moses wrote. “It is better for people experiencing homelessness. It is better for communities seeking to address worries and complaints about visible homelessness in public spaces.

How You Can Help

The pandemic proved that we need to rethink housing in the U.S. It also showed that aid programs work when agencies and service organizations are provided with sufficient funds and clear guidance on spending aid dollars.

Contact your officials and representatives. Tell them you support keeping many of the pandemic-related aid programs in place for future use. They have proven effective at keeping people housed, which is the first step to ending homelessness.

Robert Davis

Robert Davis

Robert is a freelance journalist based in Colorado who covers housing, police, and local government.

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