In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Grants Pass v. Johnson, absolutely nothing will change in Maine.

Outside of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court’s decision does nothing more than preserve the status quo.

In Maine, this means that the state’s statute requiring each law enforcement agency to have a homeless crisis protocol in place remains. These protocols require law enforcement agencies to offer referrals to treatment, mental health services, emergency housing and case management for people experiencing homelessness who commit certain listed offenses. This includes criminal trespass, which is the typical charge for removing people from places where they are camping or in other ways ought not to be.

Grants Pass v. Johnson is, nonetheless, an inflection point. What is clear from reading the majority opinion is that when addressing such a complex issue, the concerns of municipalities are paramount; the views, hardships and concerns of the unhoused are given short shrift at best and, at worst, dismissed out of hand.

The court’s reason for holding in favor of the city of Grants Pass is rudimentary; the history and tradition of the Eighth Amendment is a check on the nature of punishments but does not restrict the types of actions subject to criminal prosecution. It was drafted, the court argues, to prevent the state from inflicting “terror, pain, or disgrace” on the convicted, not to prevent their conviction.

While this may be true, it is also the case that the court’s solution to the problem of sleeping while unhoused relies on existing remedies enshrined in the Fifth, Sixth and 14th amendments. According to the court, people convicted of criminal trespass have the right to an attorney, as do people adjudicated through civil proceedings (although the state in these cases has no duty to provide counsel), and that no one can be deprived of their property or liberty without due process of law.


This is where the court’s thesis collapses. For while these protections exist, in most cases, it costs money to defend them. If homeless people had the money for a lawyer to protect their interests in court, they probably would not be in court in the first place.

Nor does Maine have a stellar record when it comes to right to counsel under the Fifth Amendment, let alone the Sixth. In fact, despite years of reform efforts, we remain at the bottom of the state rankings on indigent legal defense, and according to the ACLU of Maine, the number of criminal defendants without legal representation has increased by 700% in the first five months of 2024.

How is anyone supposed to navigate these challenges while surviving outside?

The reality is, they can’t.

The single most important step Maine can take to prevent our state from going the way of California and other Western states is to ensure that everyone has a safe place to sleep at night. This requires the state and each county and municipality to develop a comprehensive plan to address rising homelessness and commit resources to implement it.

That’s why interim housing – emergency shelter – is so critical. Providers across the state work every day to offer safe places to sleep, in-house case management and housing navigation, and access to other services and resources like health care, housing vouchers, job readiness and, yes, referrals to legal services.


All the things required under a homeless crisis protocol. And everything you need to end a housing crisis.

We don’t do this work alone. We work alongside first responders, city services and colleagues in the nonprofit sector to address the needs of the unhoused.

Waterville is an example of just how effective this is in practice. Every two weeks from early fall to late spring, Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter & Services hosts the Waterville Homeless Task Force, which brings together first responders, city leaders, behavioral health professionals and others working on this issue. We share information, coordinate services, align our response and plan for surges in demand.

Because of our work, I believe Waterville was the first and only city in Maine to end unsheltered homelessness last winter.

As a state, we’re not there yet, but by building on models that work and with effective leadership from the governor down to each town council, select board, city manager and mayor, we could be.

Thanks to this decision by the court, we haven’t got a moment to lose.

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