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Democrats Are Shifting Right on Homelessness, With the Supreme Court’s OK

A recent Supreme Court ruling highlights just how much the politics of homelessness and crime have changed within the Democratic Party.

Homelessness Supreme Court Oregon AP-24105353542881
Jenny Kane/AP

Democrats appear prepared to use the power the Supreme Court just gave them to crack down on homeless encampments — a notable departure from more humanitarian-focused approaches previously pushed by the party.

This month’s decision in Grants Pass, Oregon v. Gloria Johnson allows cities to criminally prosecute people for sleeping outside even if they have nowhere else to go. And although some progressives came out against the ruling, many of the leaders pushing for the ability to break up encampments were Democrats, showing just how much the politics of homelessness and crime have changed within the party.

If progressive politicians continue to back off on left-leaning solutions to crime and homelessness, it could carry big changes for residents and the broader Democratic Party.

“It’s disappointing to see, to put it mildly,” said Kate Walz, associate director of litigation at the National Housing Law Project, of the Democrats who supported Grants Pass. “It’s disappointing that they wouldn’t consider alternatives to criminalization that are far more effective and long-lasting, but they made their decision.”

The case arose over a Grants Pass law, with briefs in support from California Gov. Gavin Newsom, San Francisco Mayor London Breed and the City of Los Angeles, among others who have become the face of conservatives’ attacks on “soft-on-crime” Democrats. Just a few years ago, during the George Floyd protests, these cities and officials were among the most supportive of ideas to make police departments less enforcement-oriented.

However, as the housing crisis reaches a critical point across the country, it seems the public is tired of activist-led approaches, and their representatives are responding in kind. One poll from Gallup had hunger and homelessness tied for the third-most concerning issue in the country, alongside the economy.

Democrats who supported the city argued that municipalities needed enforcement-related measures as tools to address the crisis, but Walz scoffed at that idea: “That is ridiculous to say that the criminal legal system will help people.”

As Democrats have come to dominate city politics — especially in large cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, which have struggled to keep housing prices down and manage their unhoused populations — it’s become easier for Republicans to lay city problems at the feet of Democrats, said Brannon Miller, managing partner at Democratic firm Chism Strategies. Issues that all cities struggle with become easier to push through a partisan lens.

“That becomes a problem that Democrats across the country have to answer for,” he said. “These sort of failures of blue-state governance and blue-city governance become larger problems for the Democratic Party and the Democratic brand as a whole.”

That has made Democratic politicians more willing to shift toward enforcement-based approaches to homelessness, he said.

Miller pointed to a survey on homelessness his firm conducted in Denver last year. While the survey showed strong support in the liberal city for measures like converting parts of the jail to mental health and drug rehabilitation services, it also showed support for measures like arresting those who refuse services. Miller said 47% of Democrats were supportive of those more punitive measures.

Other areas have seen a similar backlash to efforts to solve issues like homelessness and drug addiction without police enforcement. Voters recalled progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin in San Francisco in 2022. California Democrats have made recent efforts, in 2021 and in 2024, to reinstate harsher punishments for low-level offenses, including shoplifting. Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party and said that part of his reason was that “the real heart of the Democratic Party is with the criminals.”

Newsom and other supporters of removing encampments have argued law enforcement involvement is necessary to keep communities safe.

And some allies argued that the questions over how to respond to encampments were not purely over political ideology.

“Governments love power,” said lawyer Jeff Lewis, who submitted an amicus brief siding with Grants Pass on behalf of the Venice Stakeholders Association. “It doesn’t surprise me that the governor or the various counties or cities want to increase the amount of power or increase the options they have to deal with a particular policy problem.”

He said governments are never going to argue to limit their own abilities, but that doesn’t mean California will interpret and make use of the law the same way Texas will.

Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass blasted the decision — even though her city filed a brief in support of allowing cities to use enforcement measures — and said in a statement that it should “not be used as an excuse for cities across the country to attempt to arrest their way out of this problem or hide the homelessness crisis in neighboring cities or in jail.”

Walz agreed and argued that cities everywhere now have an important choice to make.

“You can choose the path of being a partner and an ally in this fight, or you can be towards the path of people who have already harmed them, which would be to further criminalize them, isolate them and really push them further to the shadows,” Walz said.

Casey Murray is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.