Court Declares Civil and Criminal Punishments for Homelessness Are Cruel and Unusual

The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion on September 29 upholding and clarifying the right of people experiencing homelessness to survive in the absence of housing and declaring that civil and criminal punishments for homelessness are cruel and unusual. The opinion in Johnson v. City of Grants Pass (formerly Blake v. City of Grants Pass) upholds a prohibition on the criminalization of the basic, life-sustaining activities of people experiencing homelessness, such as sleeping outside or in tents. The ruling supports and affirms rights for unhoused people forced to sleep outside across the country, protecting them from unjust punishment.

The local government of Grants Pass, Oregon, openly engaged in a campaign to prevent people from sleeping outside on public property by enacting ordinances criminalizing sleeping in public. The ordinances also banned the use of items such as blankets and cardboard boxes relied upon by people to protect themselves from the weather. Like the ruling in Martin v. Boise (see Memo, 12/23/2019), the court stated that, in the absence of adequate shelter beds, people experiencing homelessness can use tents, sleep in vehicles, or use other forms of protection from the elements without being subjected to civil or criminal publishment and without facing fines.

The growing affordable housing gap and shrinking social safety net have left millions of people unhoused or at-risk of losing their homes, and most American cities have fewer emergency shelter beds than people who need shelter. Despite this lack of affordable housing and shelter space, many cities have chosen to punish people criminally or civilly for living on the street. Criminalization policies are not only ineffective but make homelessness harder to exit. Arrests, unaffordable tickets, and the collateral consequences of criminal convictions make it more difficult for people to exit homelessness and get back on their feet.

Learn more about the criminalization of homelessness on page 6-38 of NLIHC’s 2022 Advocate’s Guide.