U.S. Supreme Court Grants Cert in Grants Pass Case, but Unrelated Constitutional Issues Still to be Resolved in San Francisco Homelessness Case

Regardless of SCOTUS decision on Grants Pass, Coalition on Homelessness v. City of San Francisco will remain active

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SAN FRANCISCO–Today, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it will review a Ninth Circuit case that has received national attention, Johnson v. City of Grants Pass. The Ninth Circuit’s ruling preserved fundamental civil rights protections for hundreds of thousands of unhoused people across the western United States. Today’s decision could upend decades of established Supreme Court precedent, and reopen a definition of cruel and unusual punishment that protects Americans, housed and unhoused, from unconstitutional treatment in the criminal legal system. The Grants Pass case questions whether governments can jail people simply for the crime of being too poor to afford housing.

A case challenging San Francisco’s practice of criminalizing homelessness, Coalition on Homelessness v. City of San Francisco, remains pending in federal district court and the Ninth Circuit just affirmed a preliminary injunction issued in that case. While some elements of the Coalition’s case build on the findings in Grants Pass, the San Francisco case also deals with separate issues affecting the unhoused community, including the city’s destruction of property belonging to unhoused individuals, the city’s failure to make reasonable accommodations for unhoused individuals with disabilities, and whether sweeps unlawfully endanger people’s lives. Despite the Supreme Court’s actions today, the preliminary injunction and the upcoming trial scheduled for October 2024 remain in place. 

The illegal destruction of property has tangible and destructive consequences for unhoused people, such as the loss of medicine, a wheelchair, the ashes of a loved one, or critical survival and work gear. It is precisely for these reasons that “sweeps” of encampments often lengthen an episode of homelessness, undermining the stated purpose of clearing such encampments.

“While SCOTUS considers the constitutionality of criminalizing homelessness, we will focus on resolving the important issues at the heart of the Coalition on Homelessness lawsuit, including protecting the property of unhoused people from indiscriminate destruction,” said Nisha Kashyap, senior staff attorney with the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the lawyers representing the Coalition. “Regardless of what SCOTUS decides on the Eighth Amendment issues, we remain committed to ensuring that San Francisco follows the law and its own policies when it comes to safeguarding the rights and property of its unhoused residents.” 

San Francisco and Mayor London Breed filed one of several “friend of the court” briefs urging the highest court to review the Grants Pass case. As part of the brief, the city and mayor urged the Supreme Court to summarily reverse the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, an extraordinary request aimed at invalidating a federal district court ruling that barred jail time for unhoused people caught using a blanket to stay warm when there was no option to go inside. The Supreme Court did not take up the mayor’s request for this far-reaching relief. 

“We appreciate that the Supreme Court did not act on San Francisco’s request as it was an overreach,” added John Do, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California. “The law remains, the trial proceeds, and the preliminary injunction is in place. Local governments should stop blaming the courts and unhoused people for their own policy failures. It’s time to focus on known solutions and invest in affordable housing and services.”

Prior to the lawsuit, the City of San Francisco repeatedly failed to demonstrate to the courts it is complying with requirements to provide real offers of shelter to unhoused San Franciscans; safeguard the belongings of homeless people, as required by law, who are forced to relocate from street encampments; or to offer adequate training for City staff who are deployed to interact with individuals who live on the street because they have nowhere else to go. 

Since our lawsuit, the city has announced a reduction in encampments and providing more efficient access to shelter and housing. “The way to solve homelessness is to create affordable housing and interim shelter,” noted Julian Highsmith, policy and communications director with San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness. “The City can address street homelessness while respecting unhoused individuals’ rights. To see this Supreme Court contemplating taking away yet another set of basic civil liberties is deeply disturbing.”


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