Opinion: How a Supreme Court case will impact homelessness and democracy in Utah

Homelessness will not be solved by putting more people in jail or issuing more tickets in a misguided effort to cleanse public space.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A man seeks shelter from the snow under the overpass on North Temple, on Friday, Jan. 5, 2024.

Despite ongoing efforts from a wide array of community members in the Salt Lake Valley, homelessness continues to be a persistent and slowly growing problem. Earlier in the winter, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and Utah Governor Spencer Cox jointly announced that law enforcement would be deployed to enforce various anti-camping ordinances to the fullest extent possible. Such pronouncements take on a new sense of legal urgency today, as the United States Supreme Court hears the most important legal battle about homelessness in four decades.

The Johnson v. Grants Pass case is poised to be a landmark decision concerning the criminalization of homelessness and people’s rights more broadly.

The midsized city of Grants Pass, Oregon, like much of the Wasatch Front and most cities across America, is facing a severe shortage of affordable housing and has subsequently seen a substantial rise in people experiencing homelessness. In 2013, Grants Pass pushed forward local ordinances banning people from sleeping in public spaces, like parks and sidewalks. The ordinance also includes public spaces like city halls, community centers, police and fire stations, parking lots, traffic islands, urban beautification areas and also in cars. With limited shelters available, essentially, in Grants Pass, it became illegal to be homeless. Violating these conditions results in criminal and civil penalties.

As Grants Pass was working to develop these laws, the community stated that the purpose of the laws was to “focus on developing strategies to modify behavior,” while the city council president stated that the “point is to make it uncomfortable enough for them in our city so they will want to move on down the road.” These efforts at increasing discomfort included shutting off water in public parks and closing public restrooms. The argument being heard in front of the Supreme Court, then, is whether these actions — intentionally targeting and punishing those without housing, when no other shelter alternatives exist — represents a violation of the Eighth Amendment barring cruel and unusual punishment, which has traditionally governed cases on unsheltered homelessness.

Should the Supreme Court find in favor of Grants Pass, the effect would authorize cities and states to punish people forced to sleep outdoors with arrest and steep fines, even when they have no other option. It would punish people for existing in public spaces.

In Salt Lake City and nearby surrounding communities, where emergency shelters are perennially full and affordable housing is incredibly scarce, the criminalization of homelessness could be devastating. Research shows that local abatement efforts are devastating to the unhoused, and that criminalizing homelessness is ineffective, wastes taxpayer money, keeps people homeless for longer and distracts from real solutions like housing and supportive services.

Beyond just the issue of unsheltered homelessness, Salt Lake Valley community members from across the political spectrum should take pause to consider some of the downstream implications of the Johnson v. Grants Pass case. Public space is a foundation of our democracy, and removing people from public space — because of lack of housing, because of poverty, or for any other reason — represents a threat to our democratic ideals.

Our public spaces, historically, are the spaces where democracy happens. Public spaces — our parks, plazas, squares and even our streets — are where ideas are expressed, dissent is performed and where rights are struggled over. Some of the most enduring and iconic instances of U.S. democracy were enacted in our public spaces. Consider Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 speech on the Washington Mall, women’s suffrage marches in the early 1900s, free speech provocations during the Vietnam War era, peaceful protests against the Iraq War and the more recent protests of Standing Rock and Black Lives matter; these events were fought for in our public spaces.

The history of advancement in the U.S. is a history of civil disobedience, and even protest, much of which has been advanced in the public domain. Unilaterally evicting people from public space, for whatever reason, is a direct threat to the democratic nature of these spaces.

The U.S. Supreme Court should find against the criminalization of homelessness. Evicting people from the public domain when there is no alternative represents both immediate violence to those who are displaced and a tendency toward exclusionary, overregulated and anti-democratic management of our public spaces. Homelessness will not be solved by putting more people in jail or issuing more tickets in a misguided effort to cleanse public space. Addressing homelessness and creating public spaces that we all want means providing everyone with access to safe, quality and affordable housing.

In the meantime, let’s ensure that Utah’s public spaces, even with their messy contradictions, remain spaces for our democracy, where we can advocate and agitate for a future where everyone has access to opportunities and resources.

(Photo courtesy of Jeff Rose) Jeff Rose

Jeff Rose, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism at the University of Utah. His research focuses on outdoor recreation and unsheltered homelessness in parks and protected areas.

The Salt Lake Tribune is committed to creating a space where Utahns can share ideas, perspectives and solutions that move our state forward. We rely on your insight to do this. Find out how to share your opinion here, and email us at voices@sltrib.com.