Is the Supreme Court about to criminalize homelessness?

The court will decide if bans on outdoor camping are 'cruel and unusual'

Homeless man sleeping on the steps of the Supreme Court
There has been an uptick in sleeping and camping bans across the country
(Image credit: Illustration by Stephen Kelly / Getty Images)

Can homeless people be punished for sleeping outside? The Supreme Court is about to decide. The court will soon hear a case to determine whether towns and municipalities "can fine or jail people for camping in public," The Associated Press said. The case arrives before justices at a critical moment: The federal government reported in December that homelessness has surged to its "highest reported level" — nearly 600,000 people across the country — driven by a lack of affordable housing and the end of pandemic-era housing assistance. 

Federal courts have previously ruled that the Constitution's Eighth Amendment, which bars cruel and unusual punishment, "forbids criminalizing sleeping in public" if a person has no other place to lay their head, University of Southern California Law Professor Clare Pastore said at The Conversation. Now the city of Grants Pass, Oregon, is challenging that precedent, arguing the Eighth Amendment "forbids only certain cruel methods of punishment," not fines or jail terms. The Supreme Court's decision, Pastore said, will "affect the health and welfare of thousands of people experiencing homelessness."

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Joel Mathis, The Week US

Joel Mathis is a freelance writer who has spent nine years as a syndicated columnist, co-writing the RedBlueAmerica column as the liberal half of a point-counterpoint duo. His work also regularly appears in National Geographic, The Kansas City Star and Heatmap News. His awards include best online commentary at the Online News Association and (twice) at the City and Regional Magazine Association.