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Alert: Supreme Court Releases Johnson v. Grants Pass Decision

This morning on June 28, 2024, the Supreme Court released their decision on the Johnson v. Grants Pass court case. The decision allows for local governments to implement and enforce ordinances that can ticket or arrest unhoused people for sleeping outside, even when adequate shelter or housing is not available. 

Justice Gorsuch delivers the opinion, which recognizes that “homelessness in this country has reached its highest levels since the government began reporting data on the subject in 2007.” Despite the recognition of the housing crisis and its connection to the rise in homelessness across the country, he writes that the City of Grants Pass’ anti-camping ordinance is not unusual or cruel because “similar punishments have been and remain among the ‘the usual mode[s]’ for punishing offenses throughout the country.”

From the Opinion of the Court:
The Constitution’s Eighth Amendment serves many important functions, but it does not authorize federal judges to wrest those rights and responsibilities from the American people and in their place dictate this Nation’s homelessness policy.”

Why is Criminalizing Homelessness Ineffective?
Arrests and fines are NOT solutions to homelessness because they do not address the root causes of the crisis. Criminalization is known to make homelessness WORSE, not better.

In the words of Justice Sotomayor in her dissenting opinion: “Criminalizing homelessness can cause a destabilizing cascade of harm. Rather than helping people to regain housing, obtain employment, or access needed treatment and services, criminalization creates a costly revolving door that circulates individuals experiencing homelessness from the street to the criminal justice system and back…For people with nowhere else to go, fines and jail time do not deter behavior, reduce homelessness, or increase public safety.”

What now? The Good Fight Continues
Despite the major blow this is to those experiencing homelessness, housing advocates, and service providers, there is still work to be done. This decision allows for these “anti-camping” ordinances to exist even though they disproportionately impact and criminalize the unhoused, creating additional barriers for them to access housing long-term. However, it does not mandate that communities across the country must implement such policies. State and local governments can still choose to implement effective, compassionate policies that enable people to find permanent housing and regain financial stability. 

We know that the most effective approach to addressing homelessness is to provide individuals with immediate access to stable, affordable housing and voluntary supportive services. This approach is known as the Housing First model and is credited with cutting veterans homeless in half since 2010. A study in Charlotte, NC found that the city saved $2.4 million over the course of a year after creating a Housing First program. We must continue to emphasize the importance of fully investing and funding affordable housing development, preservation, and homeless service systems.

Calls to Action & Key Points
Housing IS a basic human right. But we invest in it as if it is an amenity rather than something that is a basic human need, required to reach any kind of healthy quality of life. We treat homelessness as if it is a purely individual crisis or decision instead of a result of policy failures and resource gaps. But we don’t have to.

Until we invest in affordable housing and homelessness service systems to meet the scale of the need, we run the risk of investing and wasting public resources on ineffective measures that don’t address the root cause of homelessness, and ultimately contribute to the homelessness and affordable housing crisis.

Reach out to your local and state elected officials! Tell them how this will impact your community. Remind them there are more human, impactful, and cost-effective policy solutions that don’t involve criminalizing those experiencing homelessness. State and Local solutions include things like:

  • Investing and increasing the development of affordable and supportive housing. 
  • Expanding or sustaining prevention tools such as emergency rental assistance and renter protections.
  • Enacting civil and human rights protections.
  • Using harm reduction approaches when delivering services in encampments, and leveraging a wide range of community partners to provide a range of services that meet a diverse set of needs.
  • Conduct proactive street outreach and engagement to connect people to housing and resources. 
  • Leveraging medicaid for tenancy supports and fund case management services.
  • Providing rental assistance and eliminating barriers.

Add your organization to this national letter urging Congress to enact Bold, Long-Term solutions. Join us and partners across the US in calling for large-scale, sustained investments and reforms that are necessary to ensure people have an affordable place to call home

Stay tuned for ongoing analyses and advocacy opportunities. Over the next few weeks, we will continue to share analyses of the Johnson v. Grants Pass ruling and communicate with the many experts throughout our ecosystem about its impact. We will also continue to work with our partners at the federal, state, and local levels to advocate for Housing First policies and fight the ongoing criminalization of homelessness. 

Additional Resources

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Affordable Housing is Out of Reach in North Carolina for Low-Wage Workers

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