BUFFALO, N.Y. – Amanda Aykanian, PhD, an assistant professor in the University at Buffalo School of Social Work, has joined 56 other social scientists across the country in signing an amicus brief supporting the plaintiffs in an upcoming U.S. Supreme Court case that many observers are calling the most significant case in decades concerning the rights of people experiencing homelessness.

Grants Pass v. Johnson will decide whether laws that either criminally or civilly punish people sleeping outside when no other shelter is available violate the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects against cruel and unusual punishment.

The court will hear oral arguments on April 22.

“Criminalizing homelessness does nothing to end homelessness,” says Aykanian. “These efforts are not only ineffective, but have compounding negative effects on people’s health, safety and their ability to maintain access to other critical services.”

Aykanian is a leading expert on homelessness. Her research examines how social policies and programs affect unhoused people. She is the national co-leader for the Grand Challenge to End Homelessness, and is the principal investigator for the National Homeless Services Workforce Study.

In 2018, the city of Grants Pass, Oregon, started issuing fines to people sleeping in public, even though the city lacked adequate homeless shelter space.

A case against the city was filed on behalf of Gloria Johnson and others.

In September 2022, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the decision of the United States District Court for the District of Oregon, in Johnson’s favor.

If the Supreme Court upholds that decision, communities cannot punish people for sleeping outside when there is no available shelter, establishing the behavior as constitutionally protected under the Eighth Amendment. Ruling in favor of Grants Pass would make it possible for communities to criminally or civilly punish that behavior.

“Attempts to criminalize homelessness are as old as the nation, but over the last 20 years those efforts have intensified, with accompanying legal challenges,” says Aykanian. “Those efforts have been mostly local and focused on specific areas within a community.

“Overturning the original ruling could result in state-wide efforts to criminalize sleeping outside.”

The amicus brief (friend of the court) Aykanian signed with the other researchers cites over 50 peer-reviewed studies summarizing the latest scientific evidence on the laws affecting homelessness.

“Looking at all the briefs submitted for this case, we don’t see much research evidence supporting the other side,” says Aykanian. “A good reason for that is that the vast majority of the scientific evidence is in opposition to criminalization of homelessness.”

But Aykanian remains concerned.

The Supreme Court in 2018 refused to hear a similar case, Martin v. Boise, also decided by the same federal appeals court to rule in Grants Pass v. Johnson, that cities cannot enforce laws prohibiting sleeping outside if there aren’t enough homeless shelter beds.

“If the Supreme Court looks at previous cases in Grants Pass v. Johnson, there are plenty of precedents to uphold the earlier decision,” says Aykanian. “But the fact that the court has decided to hear this case does make me nervous about the possible outcome.”

Aykanian says there have been significant increases recently in homelessness rates, particularly unsheltered homelessness, as well as rising poverty rates and higher rates of food insecurity, factors that contribute to homelessness.

“Addressing that takes a lot,” she says. “And a place like Grants Pass — where the population has been steadily increasing, while their housing stock has not — faces big challenges.

“But let’s not punish the people when we can’t solve the problem.”