On Tuesday, McGeorge School of Law’s Homeless Advocacy Clinic (HAC) submitted an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in Grants Pass v. Johnson. Professor Ron Hochbaum, staff attorney Tori Larett, and third-year law student Rachel Alstrom co-authored the brief with a team of attorneys representing the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP), a coalition of organizers dedicated to exposing and eliminating the root causes of homelessness and poverty while empowering communities to demand civil and human rights. 

In Grants Pass, the Supreme Court will consider whether criminalizing camping on public property constitutes cruel and unusual punishment prohibited under the Eighth Amendment. In granting certiorari, the Court will consider the Ninth Circuit’s ruling in Martin v. Boise (2019) that found enforcement of anti-camping ordinances unconstitutional when localities fail to provide shelter beds to unhoused people. 

Grants Pass’ ban on camping is part of a national trend of criminalizing homelessness. Over the last 30 years, cities, counties, and states across the country have outlawed unavoidable conduct that unhoused people engage in to survive, including sleeping, sitting, and lying down in public.

The amicus brief highlights how criminalization does not address the root causes of homelessness and — in fact — obstructs pathways out of homelessness. Furthermore, it establishes the connection between the criminalization of homelessness and the United States’ legacy of segregation. 

“Anti-homeless laws like the camping ban in Grants Pass are sanitized versions of segregationist laws long deemed immoral and unconstitutional. While neutral on their face, they are tactically designed to exclude unhoused people who are disproportionately People of Color, LGBTQ, and living with disabilities,” Larett said. 

Paul Boden, the executive director of WRAP, added that, “This brief was important to our members because it speaks directly with and on behalf of our community. It’s not about them but instead from us. It speaks to the historical patterns of oppression in the United States. Unhoused community members are not the first people that need the protections of the Eighth Amendment because we are not the first people who have been ‘othered’ by those in power. Disabled people, BIPOC, queer individuals, and many others have all been impacted by local laws intended to force us out of towns. We need to protect everyone in our community and doing so is how we protect ourselves.” 

Hochbaum described the brief as an example of “movement lawyering” that is taught in the Homeless Advocacy Clinic and Poverty Law at McGeorge School of Law.  

“To accomplish systemic reform, you need to raise consciousness. This brief has that potential because it speaks to the experience of criminalization from the perspective of unhoused people subject to it. The Supreme Court should never issue a decision without hearing from the people who will be most impacted by its rulings,” Hochbaum said.