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attorney attends arguments in historic Supreme Court homelessness case

It is 5 a.m. on Monday, April 22, when I arrive at the U.S. Supreme Court.

I see dozens of people with sleeping bags and blankets already lined up for the chance to attend oral arguments scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. Many of them will not be able to get into the limited public seating despite camping overnight in the cold. As a member of the Supreme Court bar, I join a much smaller line reserved for lawyers admitted to practice before the court. I am privileged to enter when the doors open at 9 a.m.

The case we are all here to see is . It is widely reported to be one of the most significant cases on homelessness to reach the Supreme Court in decades, perhaps ever. Yet here we are, at the highest court in the land, and the issue that we are arguing over is whether it is unlawful to punish people because they are homeless and have no choice but to sleep outside.

That’s what the city of Grants Pass, Oregon, is doing with its public camping ordinance, which bans sleeping outdoors with a covering such as a blanket. The court will decide whether it is cruel and unusual punishment – a violation of the Eighth Amendment – to fine and jail people experiencing homelessness for doing so when they have no alternative.

The lower courts, where the city has lost, believe the constitutional prohibition against status crimes extends to laws like the one in Grants Pass, which is punishing the status of homelessness.

In the video: Efrén Olivares, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s director of strategic litigation, explains the facts of the Johnson v. City of Grants Pass case outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on April 22, 2024. (Credit: )

The Southern Poverty Law Center agrees with the lower courts. We joined other nonprofit poverty law organizations to file an amicus brief – also known as a “friend-of-the-court brief” – before the court in support of the plaintiffs. People without housing have no choice but to violate laws prohibiting sleeping outdoors. We also urged the court to reject the city’s reliance on the history of vagrancy laws to justify their camping ordinance. Vagrancy laws were used as a tool of economic and racial oppression, particularly in the Deep South.

The lasts two-and-a-half hours, with the attorneys facing robust questioning from all nine justices.

It should be clear that the criminal legal system does not have the tools to solve the housing crisis in our country that is causing people to sleep outdoors. Yet Theane Evangelis, the lawyer for Grants Pass, argues to the justices that the city requires such tools to incentivize people to accept shelter – even as she admits during questioning that there are not sufficient shelters and services to meet the needs of all the people experiencing homelessness in their community.

As Evangelis takes her place at the podium, more than 700 people from across the nation rally in front of the courthouse steps outside. My colleagues from the are out there with them, including Efrén Olivares, our director of strategic litigation and advocacy, who is one of many speakers lifting their voices in support of the campaign.

Efrén Olivares at podium speaking.

Efrén Olivares, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s director of strategic litigation, speaks during a rally outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on April 22, 2024, as justices hear oral arguments in Johnson v. City of Grants Pass, among the most significant cases on homelessness to reach the court in decades.

Credit: Matailong Du
Group of people holding signs with US Supreme Court building in background.

Representatives from the Center for Popular Democracy join the gathering outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on April 22, 2024.

Credit: Matailong Du
A reporter and camera obscure view of Efren Olivares speaking at microphone.

The ’s Efrén Olivares speaks with media outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on April 22, 2024.

Credit: Matailong Du
Group of people with signs stand with US Supreme Court building in background.

Representatives from the Southern Poverty Law Center join hundreds outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., during a rally in support of rights for unhoused people on April 22, 2024.

Credit: Matailong Du

Later, inside the court, lawyer Kelsi Corkran makes the case for the plaintiffs.

“The only tool the city wants that it doesn’t have is authority to impose a 24/7 citywide sleeping ban that forces its homeless residents to either move to another jurisdiction or face endless punishment,” Corkran said. “The state police power is broad, but it does not include the power to push the burdens of social problems like poverty onto other communities or the power to satisfy public demand by compromising individual constitutional rights.”

I couldn’t agree more. I am a lawyer who has spent much of the past two decades defending people who are unhoused from these cruel abuses of state police power used to punish – instead of help – people in need. I look forward to the day, hopefully soon, when we can put an end to the debate and agree that homelessness is not a crime. Then, we can turn to the real work of addressing this humanitarian crisis.

Ultimately, no matter how the court rules in June, the decision will do nothing to address why more than half a million people do not have housing on any given night in the richest country in the world.

While the causes may be complex, the solution is simple: Homelessness ends with a home.

Illustration at top: “I look forward to the day, hopefully soon, when we can put an end to the debate and agree that homelessness is not a crime,” says Kirsten Anderson, center, the ’s deputy legal director for economic justice.