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Banning homeless camps? What a Supreme Court case could mean for Michigan

A bright red cart stands next to a blue tent used by a homeless person, A pending decision by the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether governments can ban homeless camps in Michigan and other states.
A pending decision by the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether governments can ban homeless camps in Michigan and other states. (Shutterstock)
  • The U.S. Supreme Court will soon rule on whether cities can legally ban ‘public camping’ as a way to deal with their homeless populations 
  • Opponents say the move criminalizes homelessness, though supporters contend it’s a way to maintain a level of public safety
  • Michigan is home to an estimated 32,589 homeless residents according to a 2022 statewide count

LANSING — Once, Anna Scott lived in a three-bedroom duplex in Rockford in west Michigan — a place, she gushed, that was both beautiful and affordable.

But it’s been years since she’s lived at that address.

A surgery prior to the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated her already compromised immune system, meaning she couldn’t return to work as a registered nurse. She tried to draw unemployment, but called the experience a “great failure” because she was one of many Michiganders wrongly denied claims early in the pandemic.


Evictions and other problems have trailed her across the state. She was living in her Jeep in Wyoming at the end of last year but has since found temporary housing that may end soon as well.

“I always wonder,” Scott said, “if our unemployment system … wouldn't have failed me, where would I be?”


Scott’s story of housing insecurity and homelessness isn’t wholly unique. A recent state count estimates Michigan is home to around 32,589 homeless individuals as of 2022, up almost 2,500 people from the year prior. Heavy concentrations were recorded in the western and southeast parts of the state.

In some areas, like Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo, homelessness has grown so publicly pervasive it’s caused communities to take matters into their own hands by banning panhandling, loitering and sleeping in public parks

Traverse City, meanwhile, banned alcohol from an area where homeless residents often camp. 

Local efforts have been met with mixed responses. Some praise cities for trying to prioritize public safety, while others equate the efforts to penalizing people for being homeless. 

But as Michigan attempts to find the right way to both manage public safety and care for homeless residents, the U.S. Supreme Court is considering a case that could allow local governments to take even more drastic action: Full bans on “public camping.”

Justices in mid-April heard oral arguments in the case – the City of Grants Pass v. Johnson – which questions whether public camping bans violate people’s Eighth Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishments.

Depending on how justices rule, advocates for people without homes say there’s a chance more cities in Michigan may take the case as a greenlight to enact their own anti-camping policies — which could leave the state’s homeless residents with nowhere to go. 

People are “on pins and needles, waiting to see what happens,” said Lisa Chapman, director of public policy for the Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness.

A lot of items like bikes and chairs under a dock in Lansing, MI
Cities across the country, including several in Michigan, are enacting bans on public sleeping and camping in an effort to crackdown on public health issues deriving from homelessness. Advocates for people without homes say it’s not that simple. (Bridge photo by Jordyn Hermani)

Homelessness by the numbers

It’s hard to know exactly how many people are homeless in Michigan. 

A recent estimate put the figure at around 32,589 individuals as of 2022. That was an increase of 8% from the 2021 count of 30,113, though Chapman believes the “increase” is actually more a return to pre-pandemic normalcy.

During the pandemic, shelters adopted stricter rules around intake, leaving some people unable to utilize them. For many, the only option was public camping, which was supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help stop the spread of COVID-19 by keeping cohorts together.

Coupled with the expiration of federal pandemic funds, which some communities had used to place homeless people in motels rather than shelters, and the end of nationwide eviction moratoriums, Chapman said it’s not surprising the year-over-year count has increased. 

In fact, she believes those figures are still an undercount. 

As communities struggle with how to handle growing homeless populations, some are turning toward “a more punitive approach,” said Deyanira Nevarez Martinez, an assistant professor of urban and regional planning at Michigan State University.

States like Tennessee, Kentucky and Florida have state-level bans on public camping, with even more considering legislation on the topic. Michigan generally allows cities to decide their own homeless policies. But bans appear to be gaining traction, even in Democratic-stronghold states like California, where San Diego has moved to prohibit public encampments.

In Michigan, the increasingly liberal city of Grand Rapids last year adopted new rules instituting a $500 fine or up to 90 days in jail for repeatedly or aggressively panhandling people dining outside or at an ATM.

“Our city’s objective in developing these new ordinances was to clarify rules and expectations around the use of public spaces, not to criminalize the unhoused,” Mayor Rosalynn Bliss said at the time. 

While cities like Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo have made it a misdemeanor to camp or use blankets for an extended period of time on public property, the Oregon city of Grants Pass went further by prohibiting camping on any public property or sleeping in public areas, regardless of the time of day. 

Nevarez Martinez said such approaches don't work and instead push people “deeper into a cycle of poverty and marginalization.”

“I would ask, what do you expect these people to do?” Nevarez Martinez said, of Michigan’s homeless. “If folks are unable to camp in a park, but also the city … has no available resources for them, what are people supposed to do?”

Business owners, meanwhile, are asking a similar question. 

Weighing in on the Supreme Court case out of Oregon, some of the nation's top business groups argue their livelihoods can be uniquely impacted by public encampments.

"Customers forgo patronizing businesses, preferring not to face a heightened risk of crime or to brave open-air drug markets," the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said in a recent court filing.

"Once-vibrant commercial districts degrade, and business owners face the difficult choice of either operating in increasingly dangerous conditions or shutting down."

Outdoor furniture cushions on a bench outside
Outdoor furniture cushions are laid out in the shape of a bed in Lansing’s Adado Riverfront Park. The city bans camping overnight in public parks, and is one of the many municipalities across the country struggling with how best to help homeless residents. (Bridge photo by Jordyn Hermani)

Policing a housing problem

The Grand Rapids panhandling ban, as well as a ban on storing personal belongings on public property, didn’t just occur in a vacuum, said Joshua Lunger, vice president of government affairs with the Grand Rapids Chamber.

The city has also worked to create more temporary housing units for homeless individuals, with a new project specifically focused on helping the chronically homeless, he said. 

“Letting a person sleep on the street is not in their best interest” either, Lunger told Bridge. “Those public spaces are supposed to be open for everyone, and they need to be clean.”

Bliss, Grand Rapids’ mayor, used her final State of the City address this month to set a goal of getting housing for 100 chronically homeless individuals by the end of the year.

But all these things work in tandem to address homelessness, Lunger said of  the ordinances and the housing efforts. “If we sit around and try to have everything perfect, we’re going to have paralysis by analysis.” 

Regardless of how justices decide the Oregon case, states’ homelessness issues will not go away overnight, said Daniel Kelly, executive director of the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County.

Even if a person can gather enough money to try and rent, “the price of housing is just out of control,” Kelly said. 

It’s an issue that’s become “worse and worse over the last several years,” he said, leading to people staying at his 86-bed shelter in Ann Arbor for twice the amount of time they had in years past. “We’ve got people staying for 150-plus days because there’s just no units available.”

Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, said the state is well aware of the problem and is working to increase affordable housing units and “decriminalize poverty.” 

That means passing bills prohibiting landlords from discriminating against a renter based on their source of income, like a housing voucher, and introducing legislation to expunge certain evictions from a person’s record.


Irwin said he’s aware of the Grants Pass case, and the implications it could have for Michigan and its homeless population. But until the court decides “those conversations are going to be nascent,” he said. 

Figuring out appropriate responses is important because “we are all one unfortunate circumstance away from being homeless,” said Scott, the nurse who at one point lived out of her Jeep.

After nearly dying from a kidney infection she attributed to her living situation, Scott is now trying to move to Miami because she could “barely survive the very mild winter we had” in Michigan last year.

“My story is just one of those slippery slopes,” Scott said. “Think of how much worse it could get.”

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