Supreme Court will not ban government's ability to dismantle homeless encampments, former official says

By Jen Krausz on
 April 29, 2024

The Supreme Court won't rule that local governments can't dismantle homeless encampments, a former U.S. official confidently wrote in the Washington Examiner on Friday. 

The case before the court is City of Grants Pass v Gloria Johnson, in which the defendants argue homelessness is a state of being like addiction, and that banning homeless encampments is "cruel and unusual."

Justices will consider “whether the enforcement of generally applicable laws regulating camping on public property constitutes ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.”

It's hard to fathom the court telling municipalities they can't take steps to improve their communities and work toward solving the problem of homelessness, but stranger things have happened in today's day and age.

Not a punishment

If the justices see banning the encampments as a punishment, it could go against a 1962 precedent in Robinson v. California, in which the liberal Earl Warren Supreme Court found “that it is unconstitutional for a state to punish a defendant for drug addiction, which is a status rather than an act, when the defendant has not engaged in any illegal conduct involving drugs in the state.”

Of course, it could be argued that the homeless are breaking the law by camping on public or private property, which makes the case different from the earlier drug-related case.

Former foreign service officer James Rogan makes that argument to distinguish the current case from the previous one, even while acknowledging the mental health difficulties that cause homelessness and make it difficult to fix as a problem.

California hasn't been able to solve it even by spending $50,000 a year per homeless person. It's just not something that is easily fixed.

"Duty and right"

"A local government has the duty and the right to protect its citizens," he said, noting that homeless encampments are just as much a public nuisance and hazard as "a factory spewing toxic chemicals" due to the drugs, crime and disease they contain.

"Government already has sufficient funds to address homelessness and mental health," he concluded. "Local governments have the right under the U.S. system of federalism, to allocate resources as they choose."

"There is no constitutional right to shelter.  The Supreme Court will not create yet another economic entitlement," he declared.

Rogan seems confident in how the court will rule, but there are no such guarantees with any case.

It makes sense that public safety should be a paramount concern, but just what are governments supposed to do when the homeless refuse to be housed and seem to prefer tent cities to warm shelters and free meals?

It seems that will be up to cities to resolve somehow, no matter what the court decides.

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