Grants Pass v. Johnson and the criminalization of homelessness

By: Danielle Hubley, Advocacy and Education Manager, Partnership for Strong Communities

On April 22nd, the United States Supreme Court will hear the case of City of Grants Pass, Oregon v. Johnson, which will determine whether a local government can arrest or fine people for sleeping outside when adequate shelter is not available.  

As the cost of housing continues to rise and push more people out of stability and into homelessness, more communities across the country are grappling with how to address the problem. Unfortunately, some are turning towards fining individuals for living in places not meant for human habitation.  

Criminalization is not a solution to addressing homelessness. Arrests, fines, jail time and criminal records only make it more difficult for those experiencing homelessness to address their housing instability. This is also a matter of equity and justice – due to the systemic racism embedded in housing and other sectors, Black and Indigenous people experience homelessness at far higher rates than white individuals and are most likely to be harmed by criminalization.  

If the Supreme Court decides that localities can arrest people who have nowhere to sleep at night, we may see even more resources wasted, more lives harmed, and racial disparities deepened. Federal studies show that chronic homelessness, due in part to its criminalization, costs the public between $30,000 and $50,000 per person every year.  

In Connecticut, the average cost to the Department of Corrections each day is $66 per inmate, or over $24,000 per year. Research consistently shows that time spent in prison is not generally ‘rehabilitative’. Once folks have a criminal history on their public record, access to job opportunities, housing and other important basic needs become much harder to achieve. This often creates a cycle of re-incarceration that becomes harder and harder to end, especially if communities are able to fine someone for needing to utilize public spaces just to get by.  

We know that one of the most important ways we can address experiences of homelessness and effectively invest public resources is to provide more affordable homes. In Connecticut, there are only 37 affordable and available homes for every 100 of the lowest-income renters, and someone working full time would need to earn $31.93 per hour to afford a typical 2-bedroom apartment, well above the average hourly wage of a Connecticut renter at $22.29. 

Rather than arresting people for being unhoused, policymakers at the local, state and federal levels should use all the tools available to address the affordable housing crisis and to help unhoused people move into safe, affordable homes. Providing individuals with immediate access to safe, affordable housing and voluntary support services like case management, mental health, substance use and employment services to help improve housing stability and well-being.  

Regardless of how the Supreme Court rules, policymakers in Connecticut and in Congress must focus on real solutions. The Partnership has joined national partners from the Corporation for Supportive Housing and Urban Institute, as well as regional advocates around the country in filing an amicus curiae brief in advance of the hearing, with the Court expected to make its decision by early summer. 

Starting on Aprill 22nd the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the National Homelessness Law Center, the National Coalition for the Homeless, and the National Alliance to End Homelessness are inviting advocates from across the country to participate in a week of action and created an advocacy toolkit to help you draw more attention to the problem and solutions at hand.  

Join the Partnership and other local, state and national advocates in opposing counterproductive and inhumane efforts to punish and arrest people experiencing homelessness and drawing attention to what really works – providing people with safe, stable, affordable homes.  

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