Supreme Court rules on criminalization of homeless camping. What it means for Kentucky (2024)

Rebecca GrapevineLouisville Courier Journal

Can cities criminalize camping by homeless people who have nowhere else to go?

Yes, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Friday in a 6-3 decision.

Though the case originated thousands of miles away in Oregon, it has implications for the Bluegrass State.

The Supreme Court ruling means Kentucky will likely be able to implement a law criminalizing homeless camping that takes effect July 15. The new law is part of the Safer Kentucky Act, a wide-ranging criminal law reform bill adopted by the legislature earlier this year over Gov. Andy Beshear's veto.

“The Supreme Court's ruling ignores decades of precedent protecting Kentuckians from the cruel and unusual punishment of criminalizing homelessness,”said Kevin Munch, a fellow at the ACLU of Kentucky.“Homelessness can happen to anyone, and we are disappointed the Court has taken the extraordinary step of ignoring precedent to support punishing unhoused people simply for existing.”

Here’s a look at what the U.S. Supreme Court decision says and what it means for Kentucky:

What is City of Grants Pass v. Johnson about?

Grants Pass is a city of around 38,000 residents in Southern Oregon that passed an ordinance to punish people with fines and jail time for sleeping in public.

Attorneys for several homeless people — among them Gloria Johnson, for whom the case is named — challenged the ordinance, saying it criminalizes homelessness because people sleeping in public had nowhere else to go.

At issue in the case was whether criminal punishments for camping in public constitute cruel and unusual punishment under the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment.

The NinthU.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of plaintiff Johnson, saying the Grants Pass ordinance did constitute cruel and unusual punishment and blocking the city from enforcing it. That conflict led to the current Supreme Court case.

Attorneys for the Oregon city say unless they can enforce the ordinance,homeless encampments will overrun the city’s sidewalks and parks.

What does the Supreme Court's decision say?

The majority opinion, authored by Justice Neil Gorsuch, holds that the Grant Pass regulations criminalizing camping by homeless people do not violate the Eight Amendment.

That's in part because a first offense of the Grants Pass camping law garners only a civil fine, Gorsuch wrote, and a person would be imprisoned under the law only after multiple violations.

"At the end of the day, the fact that thousands of municipalities supported Grants Pass’s methods was probably compelling to the majority of justices," University of Kentucky law professor Raquel Wilson told The Courier Journal.

Justices Sonia Sotmayor, Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson dissented.

"Sleep is a biological necessity, not a crime. For some people, sleeping outside is their only option," Sotomayor wrote, terming the Grants Pass law "unconscionable and unconstitutional."

What does the Grants Pass decision mean for Kentucky?

State lawmakers this year passed a sweeping criminal justice reform bill called the Safer Kentucky Act, which would criminalize homeless camping like Grants Pass did.

The Safer Kentucky Act outlaws “unlawful camping” on public or private streets, in parks and in many other locations without permission. The first offense is a violation, which can be punished with a fine. Subsequent offenses are Class B misdemeanors, which can be punished with fines and prison time.

The Supreme Court’s decision means the Kentucky law will likely take effect as planned next month.

Louisville city leaders have taken an aggressive stance against homeless camps, clearing them even when local shelters are full and as temperatures reach dangerously high levels.

What are Kentuckians saying about the Supreme Court's decision?

Kentucky advocates for unhoused people said the decision will not help solve the problem.

Solving homelessness requires an increased supply of affordable housing, Adrienne Bush, executive director of the Homeless and Housing Coalition of Kentucky, said in a statement.

"The Supreme Court’s opinion that fining and jailing people for being homeless is legal still doesn’t make it right — or effective," Bush wrote. "Attempts to pathologize individuals for failing in a housing market in which too many of us are struggling are a cruel distraction from the real solutions that start with abundant housing supply."

Maurice Noe, a leader with VOCAL-KY, a grassroots advocacy group for low-income people, added resources used for arresting homeless people would be better spent helping them find housing or providing other services.

"As someone who has lived on Louisville’s streets, I can confidently say this will only harm our friends and family struggling to get off our streets," Noe said in a statement.

Other Kentuckians hailed the court's decision.

"What we have been doing in Louisville is neither safe nor compassionate, so the legislature passed the Safer Kentucky Act this year to protect our people and their property and to actually work to treat the homeless," said Rep. Jason Nemes, R-Louisville. He said the new law will help push homeless people into mental health or addiction treatment.

Those views were echoed by Rep. Jared Bauman, R-Louisville, the Safer Kentucky Act's main sponsor. He said the decision "embodies a compassionate approach towards our homeless population" and praised the Supreme Court for recognizing "the public safety and private property interests involved in this complex issue."

Rep. John Hodgson, R-Fisherville, also approved of the decision. He said the new Kentucky law will allow judges to divert people charged with unlawful camping into mental health or addiction treatment.

"That could be "the 'nudge' that ultimately saves their lives," Hodgson said. He also pointed out the Kentucky law allows local governments to designate "temporary camping zones" that must include clean water and toilets.

Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Fruit Hill, opposed many provisions of the Safer Kentucky Act, even though many in the Republican Party supported it. On social media, he said he was "disappointed" in the court's ruling, and he hopes next year's General Assembly will "enact compassionate legislation that aims to cure homelessness instead of criminalizing it.”

How many people are homeless in Kentucky?

Around 4,800 people were homeless in Kentucky as of January 2023, according to anannual count led by the Kentucky Housing Corporation. Of those, 1,470 were unsheltered. Others were staying in emergency shelters ortransitional housing.

Many of those unsheltered people are here in Louisville. Just under 600 peoplewere living without shelter during a “point in time” count in Louisville in January of this year, withanother 1,133 staying in emergency shelters or transitional housing.

That data is a snapshot of just one night. The total number of people who experience homelessness each year is much higher. For example, during a one-year period ending in September 2022, more than 11,000 people sought homeless-related services in Louisville, according to data from the Louisville Coalition for the Homeless.

Louisville has five emergency homeless shelters open to most homeless adults, but those are almost always full or nearly full,data from the Louisville Coalition from the Homeless shows.

Reach Rebecca Grapevine at rgrapevine@courier-journal.com or follow her on X, formerly known as Twitter, at @RebGrapevine.

Supreme Court rules on criminalization of homeless camping. What it means for Kentucky (2024)
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