Banning Overnight Camping Isn’t a Solution to Homelessness—Building Housing Is

Tents set up on the sidewalk in Portland, OR. Credit: Graywalls/Wikimedia Commons

Most people who sleep outside do so by necessity, not choice. Many do not have places to go and cannot be immediately accommodated by existing shelters or housing resources. Can cities respond by criminalizing such a living status? Is this response effective?

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the Grants Pass v. Johnson case on Apr. 22. Advocates for homeless policy reform have been monitoring this case, as it may determine whether or not cities can penalize individuals for sleeping outside without accessible shelter or housing options. They consider this punitive approach ineffective due to the disruption to unhoused individuals and the expensive use of public funds to detain people. 

Grants Pass is a rural town in Oregon that has adopted several ordinances that effectively make unsheltered homelessness a crime, despite having only one shelter with several barriers. Unsheltered residents in Grants Pass, such as Gloria Johnson, had been issued citations and threatened with criminal charges for sleeping in parks. Case law from Robinson v. California (1962) states that criminalizing a living status—in that case, being addicted to narcotics—is unlawful.

Grants Pass v. Johnson follows the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Martin v. City of Boise (2018). The court determined that criminalizing unsheltered people violates the Eighth Amendment (which bans cruel and unusual punishment) and “bars a city from prosecuting people criminally for sleeping outside on public property when those people have no home or other shelter to go to.”

It is unclear in which direction the Supreme Court will rule, or if they will even decide. Some justices have pointed out that the case may not have standing (due to plaintiffs facing civil rather than criminal punishment) or has become moot (due to new state law superseding the local ordinances). Both circumstances would lead to a non-decision, and Chief Justice Roberts expressed concerns that the Supreme Court may not be the appropriate group to make homeless policy. 

In Athens, the Advantage Street Outreach team has responded to 103 homeless encampment closures since the fall of 2020, resulting in the forced displacement of 517 people. Of the closures, 45 encampments were on public property (36 county-owned and nine state-owned). Dozens of additional displacements have occurred that never came across the Street Outreach team’s radar. 

Athens-Clarke County has an ordinance ban on overnight camping in parks and responds similarly to camps on other ACC-owned properties. While ACC does make efforts to mitigate the harm generated in the destabilizing forced relocation of unsheltered residents by collaborating with service providers, unhoused residents have few options due to shelters operating at capacity and a severe shortage of rental units in the local market. ACC and service providers have effective partnerships, but systemic limitations persist. 

Housing scholar Gregg Colburn and data scientist Clayton Aldern studied metropolitan areas nationwide and identified housing demand and housing supply elasticity (the supply responsiveness to increased demand) as the two most important predictors of per capita homeless rates in a city. Their research validates that increases in Athens homelessness are primarily due to skyrocketing housing demand coupled with a lagging housing supply. 

While many skeptics ascribe individual-level factors, such as substance use and mental illness, as being root causes of homelessness, Colburn and Aldern quantitatively establish these factors to have little to no effect on per capita homelessness variation from city to city. Their analysis suggests that individual factors predict who becomes homeless when structural forces necessitate some to be homeless. In Athens, the demand for housing will continue to rise. Local policy tools exist to improve the responsiveness of the housing supply to the increased demand. For example, ACC could enact zoning reform to allow for greater density or create a local housing strike fund to incentivize the types of housing developments needed.

A Supreme Court ruling in favor of Grants Pass would continue the trend of cities criminalizing their most vulnerable people for their homeless status. A ruling favoring the unhoused plaintiffs may force cities to take a more proactive approach to increase reasonable shelter and housing options instead of criminalization. The one clear thing: Homelessness is primarily a housing problem requiring municipalities to implement housing solutions. 

Morris is the THRIVE Community Team Leader at Advantage Behavioral Health Systems.