House the homeless

Josh Frank
Friday, May 24, 2024

On April 22nd, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments for Grants Pass v Johnson, a case that focuses on whether unhoused – the term that has generally replaced ‘homeless’ – people with no indoor shelter options can even pull a blanket around themselves outdoors without being subject to criminal punishment.

Before making its way to the Supreme Court on appeal, the Ninth Circuit Court held that municipalities can’t punish involuntarily homeless people for merely living in the place where they are. This is exactly what the city of Grants Pass, Oregon, did when it outlawed resting or sleeping anywhere on public property with so much as a blanket to survive in cold weather, even when no beds in shelters were available.

The law makes it impossible for unhoused residents to stay in Grants Pass, effectively forcing them to either move to another city or face endless rounds of punishment. In Grants Pass, the punishment starts with a $295 fine that, if unpaid, goes up to $500, and can escalate from there to criminal trespass charges, penalties of up to 30 days in jail, and a $1,250 fine.

The issue before the court is whether such a law violates the Eighth Amendment’s restrictions against cruel and unusual punishment. The city is asking the court to decide that the Eighth Amendment doesn’t impose any substantive limit on what can be criminalized, so long as the punishment itself isn’t considered cruel and unusual. If so, municipalities across the nation would be free to make involuntary homelessness unlawful.

In response, more than 40 amicus briefs with over 1,100 signatories were filed against the city’s case, representing millions of people concerned about or potentially affected by the far-reaching consequences of such a decision. The Kairos Center for Religions, Rights & Social Justice – to which the two authors of this piece belong – submitted one such brief together with more than a dozen religious denominations, historic houses of worship, and interfaith networks.

Along with the 13 official signatories of that brief, many more clergy, faith leaders, and institutions support its core assertion: that the Grants Pass ordinance violates our interfaith tradition’s directives on the moral treatment of poor and unhoused people. Indeed, the Supreme Court’s decision could dramatically criminalize poverty and homelessness nationwide, especially if cities near Grants Pass, in the state of Oregon, and across the country, put in place similar restrictions.

Sadly, such a scenario is anything but far-fetched, given not just this Supreme Court but all too much of this country. Since the early 2000s, our nation has regularly turned to policing and “law and order” responses to social crises. Often wielded against poor and low-income communities in the form of fines, fees, and risks of jail time, such threats are regularly backed up by police in full body armor, using tactical gear and, in this century so far, hundreds of millions of dollars of military equipment transferred directly from the Pentagon to thousands of police departments nationwide.

All of this has made the possibility of using violence and brute force more likely in relation to many situations, including the world of the unhoused. Most recently, of course, militarized police have swarmed campuses to help quell largely peaceful student protests over the war on Gaza. Consider it anything but ironic that when Northeastern University students were arrested for their Gaza encampment, they were taken to the same facilities where unhoused people were being processed during homeless encampment sweeps, as local contacts in Boston have told us.

The homelessness and housing crises unfolding today reflect a broader national crisis of economic insecurity. In 2023, after all, approximately 135 million people or more than 40 per cent of the nation, were considered poor or low-income and just one crisis away from becoming homeless. In a dramatic return to pre-pandemic conditions, this included 60 per cent of Latinos (38.9 million), 59 per cent of Native Americans (2.3 million), 55 per cent of Blacks (22.5million), 36 per cent of Asian people (8 million) and 32 per cent of Whites (61.8 million).

Among those tens of millions of Americans, housing insecurity is alarmingly widespread. Before the pandemic, there were approximately 8 to 11 million people who were homeless or on the verge of becoming so, relying on a crumbling shelter system and a growing constellation of informal encampments on America’s streets, or trapped in a rotating series of sleeping places, including cars and couches, or doubled or tripled up in apartments.

Worse yet, even those numbers were likely an underestimate: when the pandemic hit in 2020 and millions of people lost their jobs, 30 to 40 million people suddenly found themselves at risk of becoming homeless.

In a nation once known as “the home of the brave” and “the land of the free,” there are untold numbers of brave souls who are without homes or on the verge of homelessness. Today, there is not a single state or county where someone earning the federal minimum wage can afford a two-bedroom apartment.

As reported this May, between 2019 and 2023, rents rose by more than 30 per cent nationally. Despite a number of local and state increases in the minimum wage this year, a living wage adequate to cover housing and other basic needs would often have to be at least twice as high as what those hourly increases add up to.

In California, where the minimum wage rose to $16 an hour, single parents would need to earn at least $47 an hour to meet their basic needs, whereas a household with two working adults and two children would need close to $50 an hour. In Alabama, where the minimum wage is just $7.25, a single parent would need an hourly wage more than four times as high to meet basic household needs.

This, of course, means that tens of millions of people of every race, age, and gender identity, in every state and county in the country, are facing multiple forms of deprivation daily and will do so for years to come.

Although the depths of this crisis are hard to fathom, it can be measured in death. In 2023, researchers from the University of California, Riverside, found that poverty is the fourth-leading cause of death nationally, claiming 183,000 of us in 2019.

Their research also showed that cumulative or long-term poverty was associated with 295,000 deaths annually, or 800 deaths a day. During the pandemic crisis, poor and low-income counties experienced Covid death rates that were three to five times higher than wealthier counties, while the mortality rate among renters facing eviction was 2.6 times higher than that of the general population. Housing insecurity led to increased death by Covid and had negative health impacts more generally.

The extent of the (un)housing crisis is so much greater than the systems and structures that exist to respond to it. In part, this is because, as with poverty, measures of housing insecurity generally underestimate the need at hand. The most commonly used reference point on housing is the point-in-time (PIT) homeless count. The ‘PIT count’ includes both the number of the unhoused who are in shelters and a street count of unsheltered homeless people. However, it only deals with those it can reach and so literally count. It also leaves out some forms of homelessness, including the millions of people who are living “doubled up” or “tripled up” with friends, family members, or even strangers.

In the pre-pandemic years, the PIT count was often around half a million people, but didn’t include the 2.5-3.5 million people living in temporary homeless shelters, transitional housing centers, and informal encampments or tent cities, or the estimated seven million people who had lost their own homes and moved in with others.

Excerpted: ‘Housing, Not Handcuffs’.