The Supreme Court will hear oral argument Monday in Grants Pass v. Johnson to determine whether cities and states can enact and enforce prohibitions on public camping (i.e., homeless encampments) without violating the Constitution’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment.” This case is about far more than the survival of public encampments; it is an inevitable reckoning with the fact that officials often sidestep the deeper issue of encampments and the chronic homeless populations they house under the guise of adhering to the Constitution.

The Supreme Court took up the case to clarify both Grants Pass and its related and more impactful twin: Martin v. City of Boise. In 2019, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held in Martinthat criminalizing public camping across all public spaces is not permissible without sufficient state-provided shelter beds for homeless people. Three years later, in Grants Pass, the Ninth Circuit extended this ruling, prohibiting the enforcement of camping bans even through civil citations unless there are adequate government shelter accommodations for every individual.

In theory, the principle that emerges from Martin and Grants Pass is both logical and humane: The government should not penalize individuals who are “involuntarily homeless,” that is, those who have no other available shelter.

But in practice, it’s difficult to enforce. If law enforcement wishes to prevent public camping, local officials need a real-time ratio of the number of homeless individuals in the city to the number of available shelter beds; and given the transient nature of the population, the rule is unworkable.