A major case about how far cities can go to police homeless camping is before the Supreme Court. What’s at stake for Anchorage?

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that holds vast implications for homelessness policy in Anchorage and other cities. The case before the court, Grants Pass v. Johnson, asks whether cities can enforce laws against homeless camping in public spaces.

The ruling will determine the tactics that cities, including Anchorage, use to respond to a mounting surge in unsheltered homelessness, setting a legal precedent for years to come.

No decision by the court is expected until June. But for now, here’s how we got here and what’s at stake for Anchorage.

What is the case about?

In Grants Pass v. Johnson, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit — which covers Alaska and eight other Western states — ruled that homeless people can camp outside on city properties when there’s no alternative indoor shelter available. Along with another 9th Circuit case, Martin v. Boise, the rulings have limited the ability of cities to penalize homeless camping. The Grants Pass case stems from a 2018 class action lawsuit in which homeless residents sued the town, challenging a local camping ban. The 9th Circuit judge sided with the unhoused plaintiffs. Now, Grants Pass has asked the Supreme Court to overturn the ruling.

Why does this matter to Anchorage?

Anchorage is in the 9th Circuit’s jurisdiction, so the city is subject to the court’s legal decisions, including the Grants Pass decision and similar Martin v. Boise decision. In practice, that has meant Anchorage authorities cannot legally dismantle homeless camps on public property if there isn’t adequate shelter space available as an alternative.

In recent years, the ability to provide enough shelter beds has been spotty, and large encampments have sprouted in parklands and empty, city-owned lots in places such as Davis Park in Mountain View and Cuddy Park in Midtown Anchorage. Some encampments have grown to include hundreds of people. While some carve-outs for fire danger and public health hazards apply, in general under the 9th Circuit ruling, the city has no legal basis to remove camps so long as there’s not enough adequate alternative shelter. Mayor Dave Bronson has said that the 9th Circuit decisions “have paralyzed our ability to address this crisis in places where it’s most severe.”

The Anchorage city attorney’s office did not respond to written questions about the case’s potential impact.


[Supreme Court appears divided over homeless ban and rights of the unhoused]

What is the Anchorage municipality’s position?

The municipality would like to see the Supreme Court overturn the Grants Pass decision and allow more latitude for penalties against homeless campers.

Last fall, Anchorage signed on to an amicus brief prepared by the International Municipal Lawyers Association. The brief argued that the Grants Pass decision “ties the hands” of cities to counter homeless camping, and “compel local governments to choose between providing shelter or surrendering public lands to encampments that harm local communities.” City attorneys from Anchorage to Seattle to San Bernardino, California, signed on.

“Current Ninth Circuit precedents have not provided clear guidance to municipalities regarding what they can do to address the various public health and safety and environmental issues created by prohibited camping,” Mayor Bronson’s office said in a statement Tuesday. “The Municipal Attorney’s Office is hopeful that a SCOTUS decision in this case will clarify the Municipality’s obligations under the U.S. Constitution.”

In the statement, the Bronson administration said Anchorage’s municipal attorney had attended the oral arguments in Washington, D.C.

Why is the Supreme Court hearing it?

The Supreme Court doesn’t publicly say why it will hear certain cases and reject others. But the issue of homelessness has become more visible in the Western U.S. over recent years, as the COVID-19 pandemic, increasing housing prices and other factors have driven visible homelessness to new levels. Grants Pass v. Johnson represents the most significant case on homelessness before the Supreme Court in decades.

What are the arguments on each side?

The plaintiffs, unhoused people from Grants Pass, and their lawyers argue that criminalizing sleeping outside in public places amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. Criminal penalties don’t address the root problems that lead people to become homeless to begin with, such as mental health, addiction and housing affordability, said Meghan Barker of the ACLU of Alaska. Homeless advocates also argue that criminal sanctions for activities such as sitting or sleeping on sidewalks or in city parks only serve to push people further into the criminal justice system and deeper into homelessness, she said.

For their part, cities argue that they’re hamstrung by the ruling and have been forced to cede public property to encampments, depriving many residents of the ability to use parks and other public places.

[City wants to sell lot where Anchorage’s largest homeless camp has taken root]

Has the Supreme Court signaled which way they’re leaning?

During arguments on Monday, the court appeared to be split along ideological lines, with the three liberal justices signaling that they were wary of giving cities more powers to use criminal sanctions such as arrests and fines to punish people sleeping outside. Conservative justices appeared skeptical of treating homelessness as a constitutionally protected status.

How would a decision affect current proposals being discussed to limit camping?

The Bronson administration recently proposed measures that would have put size limits and other rules for camps in place and given the city more latitude to dismantle camps, even without shelter available. One proposal also would have criminalized camping in some areas of the city. On Thursday, the Assembly voted down both measures, with Assembly members including Chair Christopher Constant citing the impending court decision and how it might soon impact the legal landscape.

A Supreme Court decision wouldn’t affect other Alaska state or lower court rulings related to homeless camping, including a case that requires the city to “provide a process treating personal property found at abated campsites similarly to property seized as evidence or deemed abandoned,” the mayor’s office said in a statement Tuesday.

What will the decision mean for Anchorage right now?

No decision by the court is expected until June. On June 1, Anchorage’s winter sheltering system will close, and more than 800 people are expected to be living on the streets. That means the Supreme Court decision and the new legal landscape Anchorage may find itself in are sure to collide with the lives of hundreds of unsheltered people. It’s unclear whether the Bronson administration will seek new regulations, how quickly any new rules would go into effect, or how the upcoming mayoral runoff election between Bronson and former Assembly chair Suzanne LaFrance would affect any changes. The winner of the runoff election would become mayor in July. New ordinances enforcing camping bans would also need to receive Anchorage Assembly approval.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She focuses on in-depth stories about the intersection of public policy and Alaskans' lives. Before joining the ADN in 2012, she worked at daily newspapers up and down the West Coast and earned a master's degree from the University of Oregon.