STATEMENT: NHRC appalled by deadly Supreme Court ruling

NHRC devastated by Grants Pass case decision


Criminalizing homelessness will cost lives


National Harm Reduction Coalition (NHRC) is appalled by the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling criminalizing people who are houseless, a deadly and devastating decision that will cost lives—particularly for people who use drugs and their loved ones.


NHRC joined thousands of advocates and unhoused communities across the nation in denouncing the court’s inhumane ruling in the Johnson v. City of Grants Pass landmark case, which erroneously ruled that enforcing camping bans as well as ticketing and arresting people sleeping outside or in their vehicles does not violate the Constitution’s “Eighth Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment.” Make no mistake: Punishing people for sleeping outside when there is nowhere else for them to go is cruel and unusual punishment. 


This heartbreaking ruling that allows the citing and jailing of unhoused people comes at a time when safe, affordable housing is extremely challenging to access, overdoses claim thousands of lives every day, and millions more are one step away from becoming homeless. This decision will lead to separation of families, further fuel high incarceration rates, and break up communities that look out for one another when our elected officials leave them behind—particularly people who are houseless, who reverse the most overdoses on the streets and in encampments. 


NHRC remains committed to protecting the basic rights of people who are unhoused. Housing, not handcuffs, is the solution to solving homelessness, and housing is a human right as are other basic needs, including being able to safely lay down to sleep at night. Instead of focusing on proven solutions to end homelessness, like housing and supportive services, our elected officials focus on criminalizing poverty and expanding the so-called “War on Drugs,” which are inextricably linked. 


Much like the criminalization of people who use drugs, with increased surveillance of our communities, large numbers of arrests for drug possession and sales, and the disproportionate impact of overdose deaths in communities of color, this decision will further force Black, Indigenous, and Latine/x folks into the criminal justice system, making it even harder for them to access needed services and support. Racism drives both homelessness and health inequities, and the roots of racism in this court ruling run deep. 


The city of Grants Pass, which has a history as a “sundown town”a place that excluded Black people from remaining in the area after sunset during the formation of the state of Oregonhas helped rewrite “homelessness policy” for the entire country, in spite of having a population of fewer than 40,000 people.


The same false narratives that push jailing to address homelessness are connected with how governments are mishandling the overdose epidemic. In California, for example, an initiative named the “Homelessness, Drug Addiction, and Theft Reduction Act,” may appear on the ballot this November, which would increase penalties for some drugs and theft crimes. “Repeat offenders” would be mandated to compulsory treatment, rolling back criminal justice reforms passed by voters a decade ago. The initiative includes no money for housing, shelter, or treatment beds.


Prior to the Supreme Court ruling, a flood of official briefs from business improvement districts, sheriffs’ associations, the cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles, and California Governor Gavin Newsom urged the Court to take up the Grants Pass case and supported the city through amicus briefs. These connections cannot go overlooked. NHRC was proud to join the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area’s amici curiae on behalf of San Francisco local leaders and civic organizations, joining over 1,000 organizations that filed 40 amicus briefs across the country in support of the rights of unhoused people.


The Grants Pass case ruling, however devastating, must reignite our commitment to challenge all structural systems that threaten our communities’ safety and health while also helping us connect the dots and collaborate with one another in larger strategic advocacy across our movements in close partnership with people with lived and living experience of homelessness. 


Both the housing and overdose crises in our country can be solved by centering the needs of people most impacted and implementing evidence-based harm reduction strategies to save lives. Proven solutions include providing access to affordable housing and voluntary supportive services, including case management, health care, and behavioral health services. 


In response to the Court’s decision, we join our friends at the National Homelessness Law Center, among other national partners such as the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Low Income Housing Coalition, who are calling on the Biden administration and Congress to invest at least $356 billion in the next year, with continued funding in future years, to ensure everybody has safe, decent housing they can afford.


These are the evidence-backed demands:


  • Universal rental assistance for lowest-income households
  • Public housing repair and preservation
  • National Housing Trust Fund
  • Eviction and homelessness prevention
  • Voluntary supportive and emergency services


We urge you to learn more about the “Fund Housing: Solve Homelessness” initiative to address the housing rather than “homelessness” crisis along with considering endorsing the “Housing Not Handcuffs” campaign. Click here for more on the campaign:


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