U.S. Supreme Court is considering a case that would impact homeless encampments

Case law across the country since the 1970s has discouraged and, in many cases, prohibited cities from finding effective ways to address vagrancy, loitering, and unsheltered homelessness. In general case law has established and protected an individual’s right to be homeless over the rights and responsibilities of a city to regulate a safe and thriving community and to protect property rights.

In 2018 the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals (West Coast) issued a ruling in Martin v. Boise that prohibits any punishment for an individual violating anti-camping ordinances if there isn’t available shelter space. Since that ruling many of the homeless encampment issues in several West Coast states have become unmanageable.   

The U.S. Supreme Court is now considering taking on a case out of Grants Pass Oregon in which authorities there are arguing for the right to enforce anti-camping ordinances to prevent unsheltered homelessness. 

At issue in Grants Pass, as in so many urban areas across the nation, is the explosion of homeless encampments occupied by people with untreated mental illness and/or severe chemical dependency issues.

There is growing momentum across the country for addressing the issue of unsheltered homelessness with a tough love form of compassion. Many areas are retooling their involuntary commitment process to force the severely addicted or those with untreated mental illness off the street and into secure care facilities.   

In it’s Amicus Brief to the Court in support of Grants Pass, the Goldwater Institute in Arizona wrote:

“Allowing people to live on the streets or in tents in a park is not a compassionate response to the problem. A compassionate response would consist of providing people with the care they need—including taking them into custody against their will if they are incapable of managing themselves.”


“What’s more, the law-abiding, taxpaying public deserves compassion, as well. The victims of municipalities’ abdication of their law-enforcement duties aren’t just the homeless—who certainly deserve better than to be left to live in filth in the streets of Phoenix through record-breaking summer temperatures—but also members of the community who must suffer threats, pollution, damage to their properties and the ruin of their businesses.”

Local impact

Minnesota too has experienced more noticeable levels of unsheltered homelessness, especially in Minneapolis where several encampments have sprung up and been cleared by authorities only to reappear elsewhere. The common theme of these encampments is opioid addiction, and an unwillingness or unreadiness on the part of individuals to accept the treatment and shelter options available to them. Instead, groups of like-minded folks have now learned to band together for protection not only from the elements but from authorities. 

In a troubling turn of events, some Minneapolis Council members have decided to support the encampment residents’ “rights” over the rights of their Minneapolis constituents who own and rent homes or own and operate businesses immediately adjacent to these encampments. This position only adds to the misery of all involved.

The largest and longest running encampment is Camp Nenookaasi which has been in existence since September. It was located at East 24th St. and 13th Ave for several months, until the city cleared the encampment last week. A smaller version of the encampment materialized a few blocks away later the same day. It took over a vacant lot immediately adjacent to several homes.

The residents of the homes adjacent to the encampment are now facing weeks or months of the illegal encampment before the city is likely to force its removal. In the meantime, smoke from about eight yurt chimneys engulfs the neighborhood.  There is also foot and vehicular traffic day and night in and out of the encampment — traffic not only bringing necessities like food, but the drugs that perpetuate the encampment’s existence, and the misery of the encampment residents. 

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to accept the Grants Pass case could lead to a momentum shift across the nation allowing communities more ability to enforce ordinances involving camping and loitering. A decision not to accept the case will further hamper efforts to curb encampments, and will embolden some leaders, like in Minneapolis, to encourage and even incentivize more of the same.

The Court’s decision is no small matter.