Supreme Court Hears Oral Argument on Punishing Homelessness; Ruling will not Prevent Case Against San Francisco from Proceeding


DATE: April 22, 2024

MEDIA CONTACT: Raya Steier,, C:530-723-2426


SAN FRANCISCO –Today, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Grants Pass v. Johnson, a case that will determine if cities can cite and arrest people for sleeping outside in public when adequate shelter is unavailable. The Ninth Circuit has ruled that such penalties violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishments.”  The Supreme Court should maintain this long-standing precedent that prohibits cities from punishing individuals simply for their status, such as being unhoused. 

“Grants Pass is not about solving homelessness, providing services, or reducing the number of people forced to sleep outside on any given night in our country. This case is about making homelessness invisible,” said John Do, senior attorney at the ACLU of Northern California. “Punishing a person who is forced to sleep outside because they have nowhere else to go violates the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.”

The Supreme Court’s decision could have far-reaching implications for unhoused people. However, most of the legal issues in Coalition on Homelessness v. City of San Francisco, which challenges the City’s costly and ineffective practice of citing, arresting, and moving unhoused individuals without offering real alternative shelter and destroying their belongings, are not under review in the Grants Pass case. 

In fact, only one of thirteen claims in the San Francisco lawsuit directly comes from Grants Pass. The Grants Pass case does not address San Francisco’s destruction of unhoused people’s property, the City’s failure to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities, or whether the manner in which city workers clear encampments unlawfully endangers people’s lives. The federal district court in the Coalition case has already determined that the plaintiffs are likely to succeed in showing that the City does not have a record of providing shelter or housing before citing and arresting unhoused people and has a pattern of destroying their belongings. The Coalition’s case against San Francisco will proceed regardless of how the Supreme Court rules in Grants Pass.  

In a friend-of-the-court brief, the American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU affiliates in 18 states, including the ACLU of Northern California, argued that the Eighth Amendment’s original intent and meaning protect unhoused people from the cruel and unusual punishment of being arrested or fined for simply existing. The groups further contend that jail time is disproportionate to the “crime” of using a blanket when forced to sleep outdoors.  

A coalition of San Francisco civic organizations and current and former officials represented by Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area also filed a friend-of-the-court brief explaining how California’s leaders and cities have used the Grants Pass case to blame judges for California’s decades-long failure to create and preserve affordable housing and address the homelessness crisis.  

“Issuing fines that unhoused people can’t pay, arresting them for sleeping outside when they have nowhere else to go, and seizing their property makes it harder for them to get off the streets,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness. “Applying for the limited services that exist is nearly impossible if you are always moved around and the government has taken or destroyed documents you need to confirm your identity and prove your eligibility. And a criminal record, warrant, or unpaid court fine can pose a barrier to securing benefits, employment, and permanent housing.”

Homelessness is also a racial justice issue. Nearly 40 percent of unhoused people in San Francisco are Black, although Black people are less than 6 percent of the City’s population. This disparity is a shameful testament to persistent anti-Black racism in housing, employment, and the criminal legal system. Citing and arresting unhoused people when shelter is unavailable and housing is unaffordable won’t solve the homelessness crisis in San Francisco. Continuing to do so will only further entrench racial inequity.

“Affordable housing is the only real solution to our homelessness crisis. Year after year, San Francisco residents have voted to support additional funding for affordable housing in the city. However, despite this public support, city leaders have failed to deliver. Irrespective of the outcome in Grants Pass, San Francisco and other cities in California must immediately expand affordable housing and emergency shelter for the thousands of individuals forced to sleep outside,” said Nisha Kashyap, Program Director, Racial Justice, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.

For more information about the ongoing lawsuit and injunction in Coalition on Homelessness v. City of San Francisco read these FAQs