In a 6-3 decision on Friday, the US Supreme Court ruled that a law in Grants Pass, Oregon did not qualify as cruel and unusual punishment. The law imposed steep fines and threatened jail time for people sleeping in public, even when there’s not enough shelter to go around. 

Advocates have been sounding the alarm on this case, arguing that upholding the law would embolden cities to criminalize rather than care for their unhoused residents. 

After the decision, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office said the ruling won’t change anything in Seattle. Council Member and Housing and Human Services Committee Chair Cathy Moore echoed his sentiment. 

“While cities and counties need tools to address homelessness, and I’m grateful that today’s ruling recognizes that, criminalizing homelessness is never the answer. Today’s decision does not change that,” Moore said. “...I will endeavor to focus on solutions that address the root causes of homelessness.” 

Though the SCOTUS ruling will not change how Seattle conducts its encampment sweeps, advocates say the City must do more.

“There are two alternatives—and local elected officials and state elected officials have to be very clear, and we have to hold them to account. Either public officials spend public resources to jail, intimidate, and chase their constituents who are too poor to have homes, or local officials spend public resources to provide housing and services that every person needs to thrive,” said Alison Eisinger, executive director for the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness. 

Right now, Eisinger said the Harrell administration is doing a little bit of both. While not instituting a camping ban counts as a “good move,” Eisinger said a “great move” would be to “invite service providers, advocates, and folks who know homelessness to help them do a better job than they think they are currently doing.”

Mayor Bruce Harrell has earned a bad reputation with the unhoused, the poor, and the broader left for his relentless encampment sweeps. 

According to Real Change, the City conducted more than 2,800 sweeps in 2023 for an average of 7.75 sweeps a day. That’s a 207% increase from 2022, when the Harrell Administration approved 922 sweeps, already a massive increase from 2021’s 51 sweeps. During his Mayoral campaign in 2021, Harrell said that “there needs to be consequences” for unhoused people who refuse shelter. Plus, Harrell has allies in the new, more conservative city council and in City Attorney Ann Davison, who praised the Supreme Court for its ruling. 

Sweeps don’t seem to bring people out of homelessness very often. If they did, then Harrell’s administration would have probably eradicated homelessness by now. But homelessness has increased under his watch. According to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s biennial Point-In-Time count, an estimated 16,385 people experience homelessness on any given night in King County in 2024, which marks a 23% increase from the last count in 2022. Almost 10,000 of those experiencing homelessness do so unsheltered.  

Sweeps serve as a form of punishment in and of themselves because they rip people from their community, often destabilizing and endangering them.  

Seattle may not hand out fines like Grants Pass, but sweeps cost people money in the form of lost possessions, particularly in cases where the City calls in Lincoln Towing to impound RVs. Seattle also may not regularly arrest during sweeps, but with heavy police presence, unhoused people feel the implicit threat of arrest should they resist a removal. 

Harrell’s spokesperson, Callie Craighead, said his administration will continue to abide by the Multi Departmental Administrative Rules (MDAR) standards established in 2017. Under those rules, the City says it will not sweep without providing 72 hours of notice and offering every resident some form of shelter. 

But the City already finds workarounds to the MDAR. In 2023, the City called basically every encampment an “obstruction,” allowing them to sweep without so much notice. (A partial court ruling from last summer could partially close that loophole, but the court did not define what a true obstruction is.) The City also skirts the shelter requirement by offering shelter that people will not accept. Someone might rather sleep outside than in a congregate shelter that comes with rules and potential dangers. 

“The worry is not that suddenly, because of the Grants Pass decision, the City will be emboldened to change course. It's that we don't have—and we didn't have before this court case—the right shelter mix to result in people accepting shelter referrals,” said Lisa Daugaard, co-executive director of Purpose Dignity Action.

But that approach—one that prioritizes bringing people inside, not pushing them from block to block—costs money. Eisinger said her coalition will ask the City of Seattle and King County for more money in their upcoming budget negotiations. The coalition does not have an exact number yet, but it will cost more money just to maintain service. In order to actually start chipping away at the crisis, Eisinger said local governments must pay to expand those services. 

“They can spend more money chasing people around, or they can spend money on housing and services,” Eisinger said. “I can tell you one works a whole lot better than the other.”