Protestors gather in San Francisco to rally against the Grants Pass case, which could criminalize homelessness in America. The group of some 200 demonstrators in San Francisco was just one in a number of similar actions around the country, as advocates watched the case unfold on April 22.  (Alastair Boone)

On April 22, 2024 The U.S. Supreme Court heard Grants Pass, Oregon v. Gloria Johnson: A case that will determine whether the U.S. Constitution allows local governments to fine, arrest, and jail people for living outside when they have nowhere else to go. The court will not hand down a decision until the end of June, but no matter how it rules, the Grants Pass case will have profound implications for unhoused people across America.

In 2018, three homeless people sued the City of Grants Pass over giving them tickets for sleeping outside, despite the fact that the city has one single homeless shelter, which cannot accommodate the number of unhoused people there. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals—which governs 9 states in the Western US including Oregon—sided with the unhoused people. It ruled that criminalizing basic survival amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. But the City of Grants Pass challenged that ruling and brought it to The U.S. Supreme Court. In so doing, local officials explicitly stated that their goal is to make the city “uncomfortable enough for [unhoused people]” that they decide to “move on down the road.” 

Currently, cities are not supposed to criminalize sleeping if no “shelter” is available. We know that they hassle and arrest people anyway. And temporary shelters are no replacement for housing. Yet, the current legal requirement that cities cannot criminalize people if there are no shelter beds available gives unhoused people some legal recourse in court when they are cited and arrested for basic survival activities, such as sleeping, sitting, standing, and eating.

Over the last 40 years, thousands of lawsuits have been filed to protect the rights of unhoused people in public spaces. But the Grants Pass case would remove the current meager protections that make such lawsuits possible. Without these protections, countless additional encampment sweeps are bound to occur, which spells disaster for unhoused people.

Protestors march down Polk Street toward the City Hall building with signs that say: “Stop the War on the Poor,” “Sweep the Court,” and “Housekeys not Handcuffs.” (Alastair Boone)

Though methods vary, forced displacement is always traumatic. If Grants Pass wins, it will be even easier for police to roll up to encampments at the behest of elected officials, and send people to jail for refusing to leave their tent, vehicle, or community. It would allow governments more leeway to disappear people, carte blanche. Unsheltered people would continue to be pushed from block to block, from city to city, each time becoming more targeted, more degraded, and more dehumanized. Cities would do this with violence and impunity — and without fear of potential litigation. 

Though this would represent a historic shift in the way American cities manage the crisis of homelessness, the Grants Pass case is nothing new. It is the same kind of power and property grab that those in power have been trying to get away with for centuries.

History of Banishment 

Governments have been using laws to control the use of public space by particular community members since the birth of this nation. The criminalization of poverty and homelessness has ALWAYS existed to ease racist fears and protect (predominantly White people’s) property and profits. 

White settler efforts to control public space began with the genocidal theft of Indigenous lands. Early colonizers brought anti-poor laws banning “vagrancy” across the Atlantic, enacting “warning out” laws that enabled towns to force unemployed individuals out of the area. Warning out laws ostensibly protected towns from the “economic instability” of newcomer residents who lacked gainful employment. These laws provided a legal mechanism for authorities to control public space. 

Protestors gathered at the Federal Building, at 450 Golden Gate Avenue in San Francisco with handmade protest signs and banners to begin their march. (Alastair Boone)

In 1619, White plantation owners established the horrific institution of slavery, controlling nearly every aspect of the lives of Black people. Following the formal abolition of slavery, vagrancy laws were repurposed to control Black folks. Local Black Codes, passed in nearly every Southern state, established brutal punishments for unemployment. Tens of thousands of Black people were arrested and fined, and failure to pay fines resulted in forced labor. Southern states went on to banish Black individuals from public space using Jim Crow laws. 

Simultaneously, cities across the country adopted “Sundown Town” policies, prohibiting the presence of Black, Chinese, and Latinx people in public after dark. The City of Grants Pass itself was a Sundown Town, and leaders explicitly targeted the act of sleeping for non-White people.

The Ugly Laws likewise aimed to control the presence of disabled people. Chicago’s 1881 ordinance read: “Any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object, or an improper person to be allowed in or on the streets, highways, thoroughfares, or public places in this city, shall not therein or thereon expose himself to public view, under the penalty of a fine of $1 [about $20 today] for each offense.

In the 20th century, other instances of displacement came via Anti-Okie laws. During the Great Depression and Dust Bowl, hundreds of thousands of displaced farmers, referred to derogatorily as “Okies,” migrated to western states. Local governments passed laws to punish the presence of displaced farmers who lived in “shanty towns.” 

Banishment Today

Laws banning camping like the one in Grants Pass are the 21st century’s version of this trend. When elected officials in Grants Pass first enacted the anti-camping ordinance that became the basis for this Supreme Court case, they made it crystal clear that their goal was to banish unhoused people from the city.

Protestors painted a street mural designed by David Solnit in front of City Hall at the end of the march. (Alastair Boone)

When a group of people threatens the very root of the system that keeps the powerful empowered, governments move to legislate against them. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 required that slaves be returned to their owners even if they were in a free state. These days, substantial profits come via real estate, retail, and tourism. When the presence of unhoused people threatens profits, elected officials call the police. Police cite, fine, arrest, jail, harass, and displace people who are surviving unhoused. Instead of providing public housing, tenant protections, and other supports, officials banish those who cannot afford housing.

The actions of local governments imply that homelessness is only a problem if you can see it. These centuries-old efforts to make us disappear can be collectively described as “invisible laws”: if you can’t see homeless people in your community, then you have eliminated the issue of homelessness in society. We know this is not true. 

Fighting Back

These fights we engage in are not just about winning or losing, they are about building community. They are about letting poor and unhoused people know, in no uncertain terms, that we get stronger when we join forces and defend our rights to exist in the places we call home.

When poor people see our reality respected and celebrated in the public domain, we build power. In this power, one day the change we organize for will come. Dignity, respect, celebration, accountability, and love are the building blocks of our community organizing. 

Volunteers from the San Francisco Poster Syndicate live screen print posters at the action. (Alastair Boone)
WRAP Director Paul Boden speaks to the media in front of the Federal Building at 450 Golden Gate Avenue in San Francisco — where the action began. (Alastair Boone)
Protestors with handmade signs, ready to march. (Alastair Boone)

The Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP) is a coalition of social justice organizations working together to expose and eliminate the root causes of civil and human rights abuses of people experiencing poverty and homelessness in our communities.