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  • Writer's pictureAndreina Kniss

Homelessness is a Policy Failure, Not a Crime: Grants Pass at the Supreme Court

Updated: May 10

The Supreme Court is deciding on a court case that could clear the way for states to jail unhoused people and throw away their things – even when there are no shelter beds available for them.

But we can't punish our way out of the housing and homelessness crisis.

Alliance for Housing Justice blog about the Supreme Court case on homeless bans: "Homelessness is a policy failure, not a crime. Grants Pass v Johnson at SCOTUS. "

Criminalization of Camping: Cruel and Unusual Punishment

The Grants Pass v. Johnson Supreme Court case on homelessness laws challenges the decision in Martin v. Boise, which established based on the US Constitution's ban on "cruel and unusual punishment" that as long as a city has an inadequate number of shelter beds, unhoused people cannot be penalized merely for their status, and must be protected from their belongings being discarded in sweeps. 

In an effort to criminalize their local unhoused population, the city of Grants Pass has appealed this case all the way to the highest court in the land, with the support of mayors and governors across the country. 

This landmark SCOTUS decision will be relevant to almost all cities with concentrated homeless populations, as the vast majority of these cities don’t have nearly enough shelter beds for those living on the streets. If the Supreme Court rules that it’s constitutional to throw away unhoused people’s belongings, cite or jail them even when there’s no available shelter, it will clear the way for cities and states to criminally prosecute people for daring to be poor in the United States. 

A Growing Crackdown on the Unhoused

Poverty and homelessness rates are skyrocketing, and bipartisan solutions are scarce – but the one item that consistently unites deep red states with deep blue ones is the urge to turn against their most vulnerable citizens, and towards citing them, jailing them, and disposing of all their belongings. The US has seen a troubling rise in laws targeting the unhoused:

For example, Kentucky recently rammed through an unlawful camping bill that makes living outside a misdemeanor punishable with 90 days in jail and a $250 fine. Even more horrifying, it arguably justifies the use of “deadly physical force” by property owners confronting “unlawful camping”.

Last year, Los Angeles made it illegal for unhoused people to sit, lie, or sleep in more than 40% of the city. According to the LA City Controller’s office, violations can be cited as either infractions, with fines up to $2,500, or misdemeanors, which can result in a fine plus up to 6 months in jail.

All of these punitive measures lead to the same cycle of incarceration, leaving unhoused people with lengthy criminal records (which can bar them from housing and other public assistance), in debt from tickets, and further away from stable housing every time a sweep or citation occurs.

Some cities have made citations and infractions more severe specifically to target unhoused people. These citations  – for crimes like loitering, open containers in public, and trespassing – don’t explicitly cite homelessness, but end up having a disproportionate impact on the unhoused community. Many of these punitive policies have been in place for years, and yet homelessness continues to grow in every single state, with no signs of slowing down. 

These steep increases in policing, sweeping, and citing come as politicians across the country are facing the highest rates of homelessness since the Great Depression and are watching their band-aid solutions fail year after year while the public clamors for them to do something. The Martin v. Boise ruling kept the worst of them from locking everyone in prison and motivated cities to start addressing shelter capacity.

However, many mayors, legislators, and governors don’t want to deal with the challenge or the cost of having adequate shelter before throwing away unhoused people’s belongings.

Harassment Doesn't Solve Homelessness, Housing Does

It’s easier to force people out of the city than it is to figure out how to house them. But it’s our leaders’ jobs to solve the problems that lead to tents on our streets, not to throw them away and let unhoused people die from exposure.

Los Angeles, for example, has a paltry 16,000 shelter beds for an unhoused population topping 50,000 people. That would leave about 34,000 unhoused people at risk of property seizure, arrest, and citation if the Supreme Court sides with the city of Grants Pass. 

The thing with sweeps is that no matter how many times you throw away the tent of an unhoused person, they still can’t pay rent anywhere. No matter how many times you push someone from block to block every week, it doesn’t rebuild their credit, undo racial discrimination, erase eviction records, or magically deposit the first and last month of an apartment deposit into their bank account. Throwing away their paperwork, medication, and IDs leaves them at ground zero of misery, unable to access almost any social service until they find a way to get copies of their documents and their prescriptions reissued.

This cycle of throwing away people’s belongings and moving them back to square one – in some cases on a weekly basis – does nothing to solve the problem of skyrocketing rents or our lack of a better housing system –   like social housing — it only makes things worse. 

The Housing Crisis is Everywhere What Kind of Neighbors Will We Be?

There will always be people unable to participate in our current, broken housing market - and that number is exploding yearly. In fact, seniors too gravely ill and elderly to work now make up the fastest-growing population falling into homelessness.

We have to decide as a country what we do for community members who cannot keep up with market rent - do we let them die on the streets, or do we use some of our country’s vast wealth to make sure people can live with dignity, no matter how poor they are? 

Hopefully the Supreme Court will rule in a way that preserves the dignity of all people, forces cities and states to enact real solutions and refuses to allow them to throw away people along with their belongings.



Andreina Kniss is the Project Manager at Alliance For Housing Justice.


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