Urban Wire Five Ways to Address Unsheltered Homelessness, No Matter How SCOTUS Rules on Grants Pass v. Johnson
Sarah Gillespie, Samantha Batko
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Homeless rights activists hold a rally outside of the U.S. Supreme Court on April 22, 2024 in Washington, DC

This month, the Supreme Court is expected to rule on City of Grants Pass v. Gloria Johnson—one of the most significant cases about homelessness in more than 40 years. It will effectively determine whether a local government can criminalize sleeping outside when adequate shelter is not available.

Grants Pass, a city in southwestern Oregon, argued that it should be able to fine and cite people sleeping outside. Gloria Johnson and others who have experienced homelessness in Grants Pass argued that people experiencing homelessness should be able to live in the city without accruing hundreds of dollars in fines and potential jail time for repeated offenses when they have no other option for shelter. 

Unsheltered homelessness has been growing since 2015 and hit an all-time high in 2023, with 256,000 people experiencing unsheltered homelessness on a single night.

Across the country, programs and policies rooted in research have demonstrated what works to end homelessness, protect public safety, and use taxpayer dollars efficiently—and it’s not criminalization. In fact, a large body of research shows addressing homelessness through law enforcement only exacerbates the problem.

The research is clear: regardless of how the Supreme Court rules, jurisdictions cannot fine and cite their way to ending unsheltered homelessness. Here are five evidence-based approaches that could actually help jurisdictions solve the problem.

  1. Provide housing. The Housing First model immediately provides safe, stable, and affordable housing—without preconditions—so people can focus on other ways of improving their quality of life, such as finding a job or addressing mental health challenges. The evidence for Housing First in models like permanent supportive housing and rapid rehousing is strong. Studies have shown it increases housing stabilityreduces time spent in shelters and durations of homelessnessdecreases arrests and jail staysincreases access to health services, and improves people’s quality of life.
  2. Ensure that emergency shelter is safe and accessible for those who need it. Emergency shelter is a necessary component of any community’s homelessness response system. But our recent study of women in downtown Los Angeles revealed significant barriers to accessing or using shelters, including feeling unsafe, lack of available spots in shelters, and lack of shelters that meet their needs and preferences.
  3. Prioritize resources for the most vulnerable residents, including those experiencing unsheltered homelessness. When housing resources are scarce, being strategic about who receives assistance first can address historic inequities and promote better public health outcomes, in addition to helping more people enter and remain in stable housing.
  4. Promote inclusive public space management (PDF) for people forced to live outside while addressing the shortage of affordable housing and shelter. These approaches can include implementing safe parking programs (PDF) for people living in cars, providing access to public restrooms and showers to maintain hygiene, and avoiding encampment sweeps that separate people from needed services. All these actions aim to create safe and equitable access to public spaces and manage conflict.
  5. Create alternative response programs. Public complaints, such as 911 calls, are significant drivers of police responses to homelessness, diverting police resources from serious crimes and fueling the homelessness-jail cycle, where people experiencing homelessness are much more likely to be arrested and spend time in jail. Alternative crisis response programs divert calls about people in crisis away from traditional law enforcement responses and instead send teams of medics and social workers who can deescalate the situation and connect people with follow-up services.

Punitive responses to homelessness are costly to cities and do nothing to solve homelessness or prevent someone from experiencing homelessness again. In fact, law enforcement responses harm people experiencing homelessness; disconnect them from services, making it harder for them to find stable housing; and shift the cost burden to police and jails.

We know how to turn the curve on rising homelessness. Research has proven time and time again that affordable housing with supportive services is cost effective for government and improves outcomes for people experiencing homelessness

No matter the forthcoming decision from the Supreme Court, policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels can choose to invest in and scale the evidence-based policies that will solve homelessness in communities today.


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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Housing
Tags Homelessness Housing stability Public and assisted housing
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center
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