Updated Apr 24, 2024 - News

Supreme Court weighs case that could affect Denver's approach to homelessness

A light green camping tent with the word SWEEPS KILL and a white skull is seen next to two people, including one person holding up a cardboard sign with the words HOUSING IS A HUMAN RIGHT. In the foreground, a man holds up his cellphone.

A camping tent put up by advocates for people experiencing homelessness during a rally outside the state Capitol in Denver. Photo: Esteban L. Hernandez/Axios

The U.S. Supreme Court's impending decision on a homeless camping ban in an Oregon city could affect how Colorado cities enforce their own laws.

Why it matters: The high court's decision could upend Denver's controversial urban camping ban — or reinforce its law if the court sides with Grants Pass, Oregon.

The big picture: The case, Grants Pass v Johnson, stems from a 2018 lawsuit filed by the Oregon Law Center.

  • The suit was filed on behalf of the homeless population in Grants Pass, a city in southwest Oregon, and targets a local city code banning people from sleeping in parks or using sleeping materials to set up temporary living spaces.
  • Oregon Law Center's director of litigation, Ed Johnson, told Axios Portland the code violates the Eighth Amendment's "cruel and unusual punishment" clause.
  • Whether the code is deemed to be cruel and unusual may hinge on whether the court believes it is punishing a behavior — camping on public land — or a status — being homeless. Status punishments have been found to be a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

Context: If the court sides with the Grants Pass ordinance criminalizing sleeping outside, it would bolster laws like Denver's, University of Denver Sturm College of Law associate law professor Ian Farrell tells us.

  • Denver's law allows ticketing and even jailing people for camping outdoors.
  • If the court sides with unhoused residents of Grant Pass, it could force cities to take "less punitive" measures to address homelessness, University of Colorado Law School professor Ann England tells us.

Reality check: Tickets for violating Denver's urban camping ban are rare.

  • 55 tickets have been issued since the law's inception in 2012, per Denver police data. There've been 12 cases involving jail time.

Between the lines: Farrell says it's possible the justices make a ruling with a major caveat, saying camping bans are only enforceable when shelter beds are available.

Zoom in: A similar case against a Boulder law banning homeless camping faces a lawsuit from the ACLU of Colorado, which claims it targets people facing "extreme poverty."

  • Farrell believes a SCOTUS ruling in favor of Grants Pass could mean a similar outcome in the Boulder case, whose trial starts in August.

What they're saying: Denver Mayor Mike Johnston's spokesperson, Jordan Fuja, tells us in a statement that regardless of the federal case's outcome, Denver will keep connecting people "to safe and stable housing."

  • The mayor has prioritized enforcing the city's camping ban with sweeps only when sheltering is available — but that doesn't always happen.

Zoom out: Advocates for homeless people, who have repeatedly said urban camping bans like Denver's criminalize homelessness, rallied for the federal case outside the state Capitol on Monday.

  • Housekeys Action Network Denver's lead organizer, Terese Howard, told supporters Denver's law amounts to "cruel and unusual punishment."

What's next: A ruling is expected this summer.


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