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  • Writer's pictureMichael Hays

Why you should care about this Supreme Court case and why it won’t matter

Guest column by Doug Slick

On Monday, April 22, the Supreme Court of the US began hearing arguments involving the case titled City of Grants Pass, Oregon v. Gloria Johnson.  The gist of the case revolves around the eighth amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which bans cruel and unusual punishment, as it pertains to unhoused citizens living in public areas.

Grants Pass is a small town with a rich history of 19th century hunters, trappers and settlers passing through to the fertile ground that would become Portland.  Its population is about the same as Norristown and their boundaries encompass an area about twice the size of Pottstown.  They host the county fair in late summer and are known for extensive public parks. Sounds a lot like the colonial history of Montgomery County and the parades, car shows and summer festivals that populate the calendars of our citizenry.

Photo credit: Pottstown Mercury (April 11, 2024)

It is those very parks in Grants Pass that have troubled their citizens and their government.  The parks have become the location of numerous encampments where people without housing have settled.  For five years, the city issued criminal citations for camping or sleeping in public.  One City Council member stated the goal of this practice was to make it, “uncomfortable enough ... in our city so they will want to move on down the road.”  The citations go unpaid, because those cited are without the resources to satisfy the punishment, and eventually result in incarceration.  The resulting poor credit-rating, criminal record and court appearances make it even harder for unhoused citizens to get a job or find stable housing.  This response puts one in mind of the Dickensian “poorhouses” during the 19th century.

In 2018, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in a similar case, 

Martin v. Boise that, “as long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people…”  The city of Boise submitted the case to the supreme court but the court refused to hear the case, making the previous ruling the current statute governing the western part of the country that is presided over by the ninth circuit.

Municipalities of both liberal and conservative political leanings have been petitioning for clarity on how to operate under this ruling.  Homeless encampments continue to burgeon and there is growing unrest among the public over how to address the issue.  One complaint is that it is unclear what the responsibility of local government is to provide an option for shelter.  Does that shelter have to be devoid of requirements?  Some shelters sponsored by religious groups require attending theological services or being free from substance abuse.  Local and state government representatives have complained that they have no recourse to address encampments that are sometimes dangerous for those who live in them and also for those who encounter them.

In order to provide some of the clarity that is being requested, the Supreme Court of the U.S. has agreed to take up the subsequent case, City of Grants Pass, Oregon v. Gloria Johnson.  Their ruling is expected to be released later this summer.

Now for the why-you-should-care part…  The Borough of Pottstown has a similar case, titled Better Days Ahead Outreach Inc, v. Borough of Pottstown, that has already received a ruling from U.S. District Judge Mia Perez.  Perez said in her opinion, “This Court finds that the Borough may take steps to close the College Drive Encampment — however, Defendant may not do so through the imposition of criminal penalties.”  That ruling resulted in the borough being prevented from using force to sweep out the encampment or imprison individuals who are sleeping outdoors when there is insufficient shelter being provided for them.  Pottstown Borough’s appeal to the Court of Appeals of the Third Circuit is now on hold pending the supreme court ruling we’ve been discussing.

Now for the why-it-won’t matter part… Regardless of the supreme court decision, homelessness will remain a monumental problem in our society until it is addressed by states, counties and localities by creating affordable housing of sufficient numbers to shelter those who are in need.  Mental health and substance abuse services must be offered and provided to those who are unable to cope with societal requirements on their own.  Blaming the courts for decades of failed housing policies and jailing the unfortunate members of our community who find themselves on the street offers no positive movement toward addressing the complex myriad of factors that contribute to homelessness.

Nobody wants to be without shelter and sleeping outdoors; the UN has established that housing is a human right.  Let’s start taking positive action supporting these concepts instead of criminalizing those among us who are most disadvantaged.


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