Tue, May

Liberal Justices Grill Attorney in Supreme Court Case on Criminalizing Homelessness


THE SUPREMES - As housing rights advocates and people who have been unhoused themselves rallied outside the U.S. Supreme Court Monday to demand an end to the criminalization of homelessness, the court's three liberal justices demanded to know how the city of Grants Pass, Oregon can penalize residents who take part in an act necessary for human survival—sleeping—just because they are forced to do so outside.

After an attorney representing Grants Pass, Thomas Evangelis, described sleeping in public as a form of "conduct," Justice Elena Kagan disputed the claim and reminded Evangelis that he was presenting a legal argument in favor of policing "a biological necessity."

"Presumably you would not think that it's okay to criminalize breathing in public," said Kagan, who was appointed by former President Barack Obama. "And for a homeless person who has no place to go, sleeping in public is kind of like breathing in public."

Evangelis is representing the city in Grants Pass v. Johnson, a case stemming from a 2018 lawsuit filed by an unhoused woman, Debra Blake, who accused officials of "trying to run homeless people out of town."

"On any given day or night, hundreds of individuals in Grants Pass, Oregon, are forced to live outside due to the lack of emergency shelter and affordable housing in their community," the original lawsuit stated.

The city has passed ordinances banning people from sleeping or camping on publicly owned property, with violators subject to fines of hundreds of dollars.

A lower court ruled that the city's bans were in violation of the Eighth Amendment, which bans excessive fines and cruel and unusual punishment, "when there was no other place in the city for [unhoused persons] to go."

The city's only homeless shelter, Gospel Rescue Mission, has 138 beds, and the plaintiffs have said there is frequently no room for many of the hundreds of unhoused people in Grants Pass.

On Monday, Justice Sonia Sotomayor appeared inclined to agree with the plaintiff in the original lawsuit who claimed Grants Pass ultimately wanted unhoused people to leave the city. She pointed to comments city officials have made about their aim "to remove every homeless person and give them no public space."

"Wasn't Grant Pass's first-attempt policy choice to put people, homeless people, on buses so they would leave the city?" she asked Deputy United States Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler. "Police officers would buy them a bus ticket, send them out of the city. But that didn't work because people came back because it had been their home... So then they passed this law, and didn't the City Council president say, 'Our intent is to make it so uncomfortable here that they'll move down the road,' meaning out of town, correct?"

Kneedler acknowledged that the statement was made at a City Council meeting. 

"Not only is [sleeping] something that everybody engages in, but it's something that everybody has to engage in to be alive," Kneedler said in response to a question from Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. "So if you can't sleep, you can't live, and therefore by prohibiting sleeping, the city is basically saying you cannot live in Grants Pass."

The city argued in its case that prohibiting local officials from regulating and banning homeless encampments in public places would cause more people to sleep outdoors—an argument U.S. Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), speaking at the rally outside the court, said exposed "how absurd our country's approach to the unhoused crisis is."

"Instead of enacting real solutions to the unhoused crisis, Grants Pass has taken this case all the way to the Supreme Court and is calling for the court to overturn a landmark decision from 1962 that says the government cannot punish people based on status. So we're here today to demand the Supreme Court support humanity, adhere to constitutional precedent, and protect the rights of our unhoused neighbors," said Bush, who has spoken about previously being unhoused herself and sponsored related legislation. 

"A person should never be punished for not being able to afford rent or a home," Bush added. "A person should never be punished for sleeping outside or in a car when they have no other place to go. A person should never be punished for simply existing. We need universal housing, universal housing vouchers, and a permanent federal rental assistance program—these are all tangible steps that would actually solve this crisis."

The case arrived at the high court four months after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released annual data showing a 12% increase in homelessness last year from 2022, largely due to a sharp rise in the number of people who were without housing in 2023 for the first time in their lives. Experts often argue the federal figures are an undercount.

On Monday, the Eviction Lab at Princeton University released new data showing that in 25 of the 32 cities it analyzed, an increase in eviction filings was seen between 2022-23. 

"The country lacks millions of units of affordable rental housing, and in those units that are available, a record number of tenants are paying well beyond their means," reported the Eviction Lab. "High interest rates prevent younger, middle-class renters from buying homes, which in turn increases demand in the rental sector."

Considering the dynamics contributing to a growing unhoused population, Sotomayor asked of people facing homelessness in Grants Pass: "Where are they supposed to sleep? Are they supposed to kill themselves not sleeping?"

The conservatives on the Supreme Court, who make up the majority, signaled a willingness to rule in favor of the city, with Chief Justice John Roberts acknowledging that the case is centered on "a policy problem because the solution, of course, is to build shelter to provide shelter for those who are otherwise harmless," but noting that "municipalities have competing priorities."

The answer to the questions being asked at the Supreme Court Monday "is not complicated," said Rep. Delia Ramirez (D-Ill.). "Unhoused people need housing. Housing is the answer. Housing NOT Handcuffs."

Ramirez repeated a phrase that was seen on many signs held by rally attendees, who included the national grassroots economic justice group VOCAL and organizers with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the National Homelessness Law Center (NHLC). 

"What the Supreme Court decides in this case will say a lot about what kind of country we are and what country we want to be," said Efrén Olivares, director of strategic litigation and advocacy at the SPLC. "We demand a future without policies like the one before the court and a government that instead works to ensure that the right to affordable housing is guaranteed for all."

A ruling in the case is expected in June.

(Julia Conley is a staff writer for Common Dreams where this article was first published.)

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