The Supreme Court is tackling the Calif., western U.S. homeless crisis. Here’s how it got there.

A 2018 ruling by the San Francisco-based Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal exacerbated the Golden State’s homelessness crisis. Here’s how.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom finds himself in an unusual position: He is on the same side of an issue as a fierce critic of his, Rep. Kevin Kiley (R–Rocklin), and other Republicans. 

Both Republicans and Democrats are coalescing around Grants Pass v. Johnson, a Supreme Court case centered on removing homeless encampments. 


Driving the news: Last month Newsom filed an amicus brief calling on the Supreme Court to establish a balance allowing state and local governments to enforce reasonable limits on homelessness camps in public spaces. 

  • His request centers on a ruling from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeal in the case, which he says has hamstrung the governments’ ability to address the homelessness crisis and impede common sense measures. 
  • While Newsom has said he is opposed to penalties for the homeless, he argued the ruling has been interpreted in court very broadly to prevent the government from taking any action. 
  • Similarly, several House Republicans filed an amicus brief of their own urging the Supreme Court to reverse the appellate court’s decision, arguing that local governments no longer have the ability to deal with the issue because of the court. Representatives Tom McClintock, Doug LaMalfa, Jay Obernolte, Darrell Issa, Cliff Bentz and Kiley signed onto that brief. 

The backstory: In 2020, the 9th Circuit ruling invalidated an anti-camping ordinance that Oregon city Grants Pass had, preventing local and state governments from citing the homeless for camping. 

  • Grants Pass authorized a $295 fine for homeless camping in 2013, which could increase to $537.60 if not paid. 
  • But anti-camping bans took a big hit in 2018 with another high-profile homelessness case, Martin v. City of Boise. In 2018 the 9th Circuit ruled that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment extends to criminal penalties for homeless camping. 
  • Under the Martin v. Boise ruling, cities can only enforce anti-camping ordinances if they have enough homeless shelter beds available for those in need. 
  • One year later the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, leaving the ruling intact for the western states that fall under the 9th Circuit’s jurisdiction, including California and Oregon. 
  • John Logan, Gloria Johnson and Debra Blake used precedent from Martin v. Boise to sue Grants Pass for its anti-camping ban. A federal district court initially issued a permanent injunction against the ban, and the 9th Circuit Court upheld the injunction, leading to the Supreme Court to hear the case at the request of Grants Pass. 

Why it matters: Grants Pass v. Johnson, which was heard by the Supreme Court on Monday, is effectively the most important case surrounding homelessness that the Supreme Court has heard in decades and will have lasting ramifications on how local and state governments can deal with the homelessness crisis. 

  • If the Supreme Court overturns the appellate court’s decision, cities would be allowed to sweep homeless camps off the streets even if there are not permanent shelter beds available. 
  • One such case that is on hold until the Supreme Court makes its ruling is San Francisco’s desire to clear out tents from its streets. In 2022, Magistrate Judge Donna Ryu issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting San Francisco from enforcing an anti-camping ban, using precedent from Grants Pass v. Johnson and Martin v. Boise

What they’re saying: “Encampments are dangerous – period,” Newsom said in a statement last month. “California is investing billions to build housing and provide the services needed to get people out of tents and into safer situations. However, our best efforts are being blocked because of sweeping injunctions that delay progress and fail to provide any consistent guidance for local authorities to abide by.” 

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