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April 22, 2024

Policing Poverty: Johnson v. Grants Pass at the Supreme Court

By Kyle Walker and Donald Whitehead

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case of Johnson v. Grants Pass beginning Monday, April 22. Justices will decide whether jurisdictions can ticket and arrest people experiencing homelessness when they don’t have adequate shelter or housing to offer. The Court’s opinion in this case will have wide-ranging implications for how communities across the country – including ours – respond to the ongoing affordable housing and homelessness crisis.

The case revolves around ordinances enacted by the city of Grants Pass, Oregon, that criminalized activities associated with homelessness, like resting or sleeping in public places. Someone who violates these laws is subject to tickets, fines and arrests. But because Grants Pass does not offer adequate alternatives, like emergency shelters, attorneys for a group of unhoused plaintiffs argued fining and arresting people for living unsheltered constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and unfairly targets and punishes poor people. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that argument, but the City of Grants Pass contends the ordinances maintain order and public safety and appealed to the Supreme Court.

One point in this case, however, is not up for debate: Arresting people for being poor does not stop them from being poor. Just look at Austin.

Voters here passed similar ordinances in 2021, and Texas lawmakers doubled down with a statewide criminalization law the same year. None of these measures included any expansion of shelter or housing options. Instead, they further burden our social safety net by saddling poor people with criminal records that act as additional barriers to housing.

ECHO estimates at least 6,600 people – our neighbors – experience homelessness in our community on a given day. Point in Time (PIT) Counts in cities across the country in 2023 tallied more than 650,000 people who spent the night in shelters, tents, cars, and abandoned buildings. During Austin’s 2023 PIT Count, one in three people in the Travis County jail (31%) were identified as likely to be experiencing homelessness, meaning they lacked a fixed address when they were booked and/or would likely not have a place to go when they were released; two-thirds of that group were people of color.

The criminalization of homelessness has profound impacts on people’s lives. About two-thirds of people looking for housing through our local homelessness response system report having spent time in a correctional facility, jail, prison, or detention center, and about 50% report having been denied access to employment and/or housing due to their criminal background.

Jails don’t end homelessness, they compound it. The Court’s opinion in Johnson v. Grants Pass won’t change that.

The cost of inaction is staggering. Homelessness creates serious challenges for local leaders, as communities are forced to bear the costs of emergency services, including shelters, street health clinics and policing people, none of which addresses their underlying needs. Integral Care estimates that someone who moves from the street into their Terrace at Oak Springs (TAOS) development uses $14,500 less in public services per year. That’s nearly $725,000 in savings across the 50 units in the development each year. These kinds of Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) developments are critical to helping people end their homelessness through holistic, person-centered care and ongoing rent support.

So what can we do? First and foremost, we must continue advocating for affordable housing and PSH. We expect service providers in our community to bring more than 1,000 new units of PSH online by the end of 2026. The first development in this pipeline, Espero Rutland, operated by Caritas of Austin, began welcoming residents earlier this year, adding 171 more homes available to people ending their homelessness. We must make our voices heard that these are the solutions we want for our neighbors and our community – housing, not handcuffs.

Kyle Walker is the Legal Systems Manager at the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO). Donald Whitehead is the Executive Director of the National Coalition for the Homeless.

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