One Supreme Court case will leave the US in a crisis no matter the decision

A SCOTUS decision won't get us closer to solving homelessness

Published June 13, 2024 5:45AM (EDT)

Gavel coming down on the US Supreme Court (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Gavel coming down on the US Supreme Court (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

The Supreme Court of the United States is about to decide whether cities can make it a crime to be a person without housing.

In City of Grants Pass v. Johnson, the high court will soon determine whether it's legal for a city to ticket, fine, or arrest people for sleeping in public places with as little as a pillow, blanket, or piece of cardboard. The decision, expected any day now, will be the most significant court ruling on the rights of homeless people in decades.

Unfortunately,  a decision in either direction will do nothing to help solve homelessness.

 If the court finds in favor of Grants Pass, a city in Oregon, it will make the problem significantly worse. Cities will effectively have permission to make it illegal to be unsheltered. Mayors and city councils across the country — already under immense pressure to address the crisis — will likely use the court's ruling to impose even more restrictions on where unsheltered people are allowed to exist.

Criminalization clearly isn't working on a national level. All but two states have anti-homelessness laws on the books. Yet last year, U.S. homelessness shot up another 12%, hitting its highest point since the federal government started keeping track.

There are proven ways to end homelessness. Trying to police it out of existence isn't one of them. Forcibly removing people from public spaces offers local politicians a high-visibility way to make it look like they're doing something to address the growing crisis. But arresting people sleeping outside makes it harder for them to secure work or housing and pushes them further into poverty. Raids and sweeps cause people to lose their personal possessions, like ID cards they need to get social services like counseling or job help. And a criminal record only makes it harder for a person to secure work and housing from reluctant employers and landlords. In fact, formerly incarcerated people are four to six times more likely to be unemployed. If cities don't move people into shelters or permanent housing, arrests and fines will perpetuate a cycle of displacement.

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If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Grants Pass, it will be harder for cities to reduce homelessness. But even a ruling in favor of Gloria Johnson, the plaintiff experiencing homelessness, wouldn't make things any better. It would simply leave the dysfunctional status quo in place. To end homelessness for good, we need an entirely different approach.

First, cities need to collect quality data on their homeless populations. That's not the norm. Right now, cities conduct a count of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness just once a year, in January. But outreach organizations need to know individuals' names, health conditions, histories, and last dates and locations of contact. This information lets cities tailor housing and support services to people's needs, track whether homelessness is actually reducing, and change processes if their efforts aren't working.

Second, the lack of affordable housing plays a major factor in the rise of homelessness. According to Pew research spanning 2017 to 2022, metro areas where rents increased faster than the national average also experienced sharp increases in homelessness. Yet too many cities still have antiquated and discriminatory zoning laws on the books, which severely limit how much low-cost housing can be built. In many U.S. cities, more than 75% of land zoned for residential use is earmarked exclusively for detached single-family homes.

Governments need to incentivize developers to build more affordable housing. Legislation making its way through Congress, for example, would increase tax credits for building low-income housing enough to add 200,000 new affordable units in just two years.

We've seen cities make tremendous progress in solving homelessness with these approaches. Houston — the nation's fourth largest city — reduced homelessness by 63% from 2011 to 2023 by collecting real-time data and moving 25,000 people into housing. Since starting a housing-first program in 2015, Milwaukee has decreased the number of residents experiencing unsheltered homelessness by 92 percent. Cincinnati reduced chronic homelessness by 54% between 2021 and 2023. Mississippi's Gulf Coast region — spanning six counties with 450,000 residents — reduced unsheltered homelessness by more than 40% since 2018, thanks in part to using by-name data and working with police to move from criminalization tactics to more effective solutions.

These are the kinds of investments local officials should make, rather than undertaking showy crackdowns that merely move the problem from point A to point B and back again.

The Supreme Court case won't solve our spiraling homelessness crisis. But it can spark a national conversation about what to do. We have clear-cut evidence that data-driven housing investments are the answer. Now we just need the political will to provide it.

By Rachelle A. Matthews

Rachelle A. Matthews is the policy strategy lead for national homelessness nonprofit Community Solutions.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Commentary Criminal Justice Criminalization Homelessness Housing Income Inequality Oregon Scotus Supreme Court