Today’s Read: What the Supreme Court Doesn’t Get About Homelessness

In an article published last week in The Atlantic, journalist, Jerusalem Demsas, dives into the tragic realities of the latest ruling from the Supreme Court.

On June 28th, the US Supreme Court overturned a critical legal protection for homeless individuals, thus allowing localities to criminalize unhoused people for having no place to sleep at night. In a 6–3 decision, the Supreme Court determined that the city of Grants Pass, Oregon, did not violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment” when it began enforcing bans on camping in public spaces against individuals experiencing homelessness – even though Grants Pass does not have nearly enough shelter beds for those in need of such. 

“This epitomizes why housing has become a crisis in so much of the country: It does nothing to make communities confront their role in causing a housing shortage, and it upholds their ability to inflict pain upon that shortage’s victims.

“This ruling overturns previous Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals precedents, specifically Grants Pass v. Johnson and Martin v. Boise, which had restricted cities in the western United States from enforcing anti-camping laws if they lacked sufficient shelter beds.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in her dissent, wrote that this decision would “leave society’s most vulnerable with fewer protections.” The local laws impose fines and potential jail time for people “sleeping anywhere in public at any time, including in their cars, if they use as little as a blanket to keep warm or a rolled-up shirt as a pillow,” effectively punishing and criminalizing the city’s most vulnerable residents.  

Justice Sotomayor also importantly underscores that the local ordinances penalize people for their status as homeless, and not for anything they are willingly choosing to do, stating: “The Ordinances’ purpose, text, and enforcement confirm that they target status, not conduct. For someone with no available shelter, the only way to comply with the Ordinances is to leave Grants Pass altogether.”

Homelessness in American cities is a result of policy choices by local and state  governments that limit low-income housing options, inevitably leaving the most vulnerable to fend for themselves. These policies have led to a severe housing crisis that cities and towns throughout the country are now trying to manage.

Grants Pass has about 40,000 people and a median family income of $54,000, which is 30 percent below the state average. The one homeless shelter there, run by a Christian nonprofit, can house 138 people. It requires that its residents abstain from alcohol and drugs (including nicotine), attend twice-daily chapel services, and “abstain from intimate relationships.” It also requires residents to separate from their partner or spouse to maintain gender segregation. For many people, this is a difficult way to live. Everybody agrees that there aren’t enough shelter beds for the number of homeless people. Where they disagree is what should be done about it.

The real tragedy lies in the fact that homelessness and tent encampments are not a reflection of “bad choices” made by individuals, but rather of a badly broken system that is leaving more and more people in our country literally out in the cold.  Penalizing the victims of that broken system for simply needing a place to lay their heads at night is inhumane and counterproductive.

Sonia Sotomayor zeroed in on a core problem: Does criminalization even work? “For people with nowhere else to go, fines and jail time do not deter behavior, reduce homelessness, or increase public safety … Police officers in these cities recognize as much: ‘Look we’re not really solving anybody’s problem. This is a big game of whack-a-mole.’” The ruling will empower cities and states to pursue criminalization without addressing the root causes of homelessness.

Without significant investment in deeply subsidized housing that is affordable to the people who need it most – and in the meantime, into safe and accessible emergency shelter facilities so people aren’t relegated to sleeping in public spaces – efforts to reduce homelessness remain futile. And efforts to simply make it invisible are shameful.

Demsas writes “fining and jailing people for being poor is fundamentally unjust; if you’re homeless, that on its own should not be treated as a criminal offense” and this mirrors the Coalition for the Homeless’ own statement on the ruling: 

“If communities don’t want to see people sleeping in public spaces, they need to provide affordable housing for all who need it – and at very minimum, enough decent, safe and accessible temporary shelter beds so that people without homes have a reasonable alternative to bedding down on the streets and in parks.  Criminalizing homelessness and penalizing people for simply trying to survive in a system that does not allow people of limited resources to meet their most basic human needs is cruel.  It is unfortunately no longer unusual.”

Read the whole article here.