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Constitutionality of criminalizing homelessness to be determined by SCOTUS 

The United States Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments about the legality of homeless encampments starting April 22. The case is the City of Grants Pass v. Johnson in which the city's enforcement of its ban on encampments is being challenged. Lower courts have ruled that arresting those experiencing involuntary homelessness is cruel and unusual punishment. In effect what is being challenged is if it is constitutional for a community to pass an ordinance that criminalizes homelessness.  

More and more communities are attempting to address homeless encampments by outlawing them, which means some communities arrest or fine an individual who is camping in a public space. A bill that included a jail term of 30 days for sleeping in a homeless encampment on public grounds has recently been discussed in committee in the Wisconsin state legislature.

We have no legal expertise and cannot address this issue on the legal merits of the case, but instead wish to point out that the real reason encampments are growing is because of a lack of creative and tenable solutions for the lack of housing. 

Regardless of what the Supreme Court decides, we would argue that even if a city has the right to criminalize homelessness by arresting or fining an individual for being homeless it is a bad idea that will result in making the problem worse. Here is why:

  • Having a criminal record creates an even greater obstacle to housing.

  • Giving a fine to a person without money is pointless and will move them deeper into poverty and further from housing.

  • It does not actually address the issues such as addiction, mental health, low wages, lack of enough housing including affordable housing, poor credit, and education, which are among the factors that contribute to homelessness. 

There is nothing good about a homeless encampment, but we can be more resourceful, innovative and creative in finding solutions to end homelessness than turning jails into an alternate form of shelter. 

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