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MSU expert to attend oral arguments in SCOTUS case that could turn homelessness into a crime

LawMSU expert to attend oral arguments in SCOTUS case that could turn homelessness into a crime


Newswise — EAST LANSING, Mich. — On April 22, the United States Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in, a landmark case that could drastically affect the rights people have when experiencing homelessness. It will address the issue of whether laws punishing homeless individuals for sleeping outdoors with basic protections such as a pillow or blanket, when no safe and accessible shelter options are available, violate the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This amendment protects against excessive bail, fines and cruel and unusual punishment.

An amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs was submitted by 57 social scientists with peer-reviewed research on homelessness and included two Michigan State University professors.

“The Supreme Court’s decision in Grants Pass v. Johnson is a watershed moment for housing and human rights in America,” said Deyanira Nevárez Martínez, an assistant professor in the Urban & Regional Planning Program in the School of Planning, Design and Construction in the colleges of Agriculture and Natural Resources and Social Science.

“As shown by the research highlighted in our amicus brief, punitive approaches to homelessness exacerbate the vulnerability of unhoused populations, entrenching them deeper into cycles of poverty and marginalization. My own research in Southern California explicitly demonstrates how local enforcement of anti-homeless ordinances not only fails to resolve but also intensifies the plight of the unhoused by stripping away their dignity and autonomy. This case offers a critical juncture to reevaluate and eliminate such punitive measures, replacing them with proven, supportive interventions that address the underlying causes of homelessness and foster long-term stability. It’s imperative that our policies reflect a commitment to humane and effective solutions.”

Nevarez Martinez is an ethnographer whose research focuses on the role of the state in homelessness and precarious housing. A major theme in her work is the criminalization of poverty in the U.S. Martinez will attend the oral argument in the Grants Pass case on April 22 and will be available for comment.

Stephen Przybylinski, an assistant professor in the Department of Geography, Environment and Spatial Sciences in the College of Social Science, also signed the amicus brief. He is an urban and political geographer whose research focus is on political and urban geographies, property, housing and homelessness.

“My research examines how unhoused people navigate a world of private property regulations by specifically looking at how city-sanctioned and self-managed encampments operate and organize themselves when operating on public properties,” said Przybylinski. “In Portland, Oregon, where I work, there are now 16 encampments that host about 500 people. As this relates to the upcoming SCOTUS case in Grants Pass v. Johnson, there are a few aspects of concern.”

According to Przybylinski, the Grants Pass case is challenging the earlier Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in Martin v. Boise from 2018, which found it unconstitutional for municipalities to criminalize unhoused people resting in public spaces when there was no shelter available to them in a given city. As a response to Martin, the city of Portland — like most large West Coast U.S. cities — has struggled to enforce camping restrictions in public spaces. As the COVID-19 pandemic continued and houseless numbers continued to increase in the city, Portland’s government attempted to enact a daytime camping ban by enforcing time, place and manner restrictions on where, when and how unhoused people can exist within public properties like plazas and parks. A Multnomah County Circuit Court judge put an injunction on Portland’s camping ban in November 2023, which currently prevents the city from enforcing this. However, if SCOTUS rules in favor of the city of Grants Pass in the upcoming decision, Portland’s camping ban may be legally enforceable.

“The issue with this, and what the amicus brief wants to highlight, is that municipalities like Portland are already able to enforce these types of time, place and manner restrictions, albeit much more loosely than they may desire because of the Martin v. Boise ruling,” Przybylinski said. “If SCOTUS rules in favor of Grants Pass, however, this may once again enable municipalities to enforce more restrictive camping bans for unhoused people who do not have access to shelter.

“The social scientists on this brief see this not only as enabling the circumstances for cruel and unusual conditions for unhoused people but also as ultimately unnecessary,” Przybylinski continued. “Municipalities are not prohibited from enforcing time, place and manner restrictions, as noted in Footnote 8 (p. 32) of the Martin v. Boise ruling from the Ninth Circuit Court. As many West Coast cities are frustrated by what they perceive as a limited ability to enforce camping restrictions, the Grants Pass case has a lot riding on it.

“Many of us who research housing and homelessness recognize that punitive camping bans, and other use of space regulations that criminalize resting/sleeping, do not solve the issue of homeessness. In fact, they tend to worsen an unhoused person’s circumstances by forcing them into states of mobility where they need to constantly look for new places to rest. Without affordable housing and even shelter in some cities, sanctioning unhoused people and eradicating a right to immobility is not only unsustainable, indeed, in line with Martin v. Boise, it is cruel and inhumane.”  

 

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Michigan State University has been advancing the common good with uncommon will for more than 165 years. One of the world’s leading public research universities, MSU pushes the boundaries of discovery to make a better, safer, healthier world for all while providing life-changing opportunities to a diverse and inclusive academic community through more than 400 programs of study in 17 degree-granting colleges.

 

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