On Wednesday, the ACLU of Alaska joined the national American Civil Liberties Union, and 18 other ACLU affiliates across the country by submitting a friend-of-the-court brief in Grants Pass v. Johnson. The brief argues that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment prevents cities from fining or arresting people for sleeping outside in public when they have no access to adequate shelter. 

Grants Pass v. Johnson involves an Oregon town that passed ordinances barring people from sleeping outside in public using a blanket, pillow, or even a cardboard sheet to lie on. Last year, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that criminally punishing unhoused people violates the Eighth Amendment “if there are no other public areas or appropriate shelters where those individuals can sleep.” The decision reaffirmed the 2019 ruling in Martin v. Boise, a similar case involving a camping ban in Boise, Idaho. 

While these cases involve cities far from Alaska, cities like Anchorage have the same issues when it comes to the lack of housing and shelter for a large and growing unhoused population. This is a public safety crisis. 

Last summer, the Municipality closed its only low-barrier shelter at the Sullivan Arena, sending hundreds of people to live in tents, vehicles, and public spaces across the city. The Municipality threatened Anchorage residents with fines, arrest, and the seizure of their belongings if they failed to pack up and move somewhere else. This summer, city officials project 900 people will be living outdoors again.  

The ACLU of Alaska has filed a series of 16 appeals on behalf of unhoused Alaskans whose rights were violated when the Municipality attempted to abate the spaces they were sheltering without having an indoor shelter space available for them to go. These cases are ongoing.  

At the end of 2023, the Anchorage Police Department reported an all-time high number of outdoor deaths. Fifty-two people died outside, a stark reminder that homelessness in Anchorage can be fatal. Taking away a tent, a grocery cart full of layers, or a sleeping bag creates even more unsafe conditions for people self-sheltering outside in the harshest of environments. 

No matter how the Supreme Court rules, this case won’t bring the solutions we need to end homelessness. Mayor Bronson has proposed a new ordinance that calls for restricting the size of homeless encampments and where they can be established. The ordinance also limits the areas where people could live in their vehicles. These are slapdash attempts by the Municipality to clean up the appearance of homelessness across our city without addressing root causes or helping people take steps toward permanent housing.  

It’s up to our elected officials to stop deflecting the blame and take real action to improve our communities. We cannot arrest our way out of homelessness. Fines, jail time, and the threat of having criminal records only make it more difficult for people to reach financial stability, acquire and maintain stable housing, and obtain employment.  

Removing unhoused people from public spaces without doing anything to help them is inhumane, degrading, and unconstitutional. If cities truly want to solve homelessness, they must focus on creating more affordable and accessible housing and services and address root causes, including mental and behavioral health, substance use disorders, poverty, and more.