homeless person nyc

A homeless person is seen near a subway station in New York City on February 21, 2022.

(Photo: Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Don't Arrest the Homeless—House Them!

A ruling in a case now under consideration by the U.S Supreme Court must show that those with no home to call their own must be met with compassion, not the cruelty of punishment.

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.

Poverty and Housing Insecurity

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% 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% of Latinos (38.9 million), 59% of Native Americans (2.3 million), 55% of Blacks (22.5million), 36% of Asian people (8 million) and 32% 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% 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.

Underestimating the Crisis

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. In other words, the PIT count was short by about 9 to 11 million people (and that was before the pandemic caused greater homelessness and housing insecurity).

Although grossly inadequate, the PIT count remains the measure used to allocate federal resources toward homelessness. Unfortunately, when a housing program is designed for tens or even hundreds of thousands rather than millions of people, it will fail. For this reason, housing organizers and advocates have for years been pushing alternatives and urging the consideration of housing solutions that could actually respond to this crisis at scale. The Housing First model is one of those solutions, prioritizing access to permanent and stable housing, alongside wraparound services for employment, recovery, and greater housing stability for those in need. The use of this model has been shown to result in higher rates of housing retention among previously unhoused people, with (not surprisingly) an improved quality of life as well.

In fact, some pandemic policies did temporarily (even if unintentionally) implement and expand on the Housing First model. They moved people into hotels or other available, unused rental units, stopping all evictions and foreclosures; distributed economic stimulus payments; and built up this country’s decrepit social welfare system by expanding unemployment insurance and food security programs, while issuing monthly payments to households with children. All of this did, in fact, prevent massive dislocations of millions of people between 2020 and 2022, while providing more housing and keeping at least 20 million people above the poverty line.

A common thread of these programs was that they prioritized financially vulnerable households over Wall Street, real estate tycoons, and corporate landlords. Years later, a majority of Americans continue to support many of these policies, which were put in place alongside breakthrough organizing among poor, unhoused, and housing-insecure people.

During the early weeks of the pandemic, unhoused people living in encampments also fought to become certified as “essential workers” so that they could get protective equipment for their community members. Around the same time, low-income housing organizers and tenant associations became acutely aware of the vulnerabilities of low-income tenants who couldn’t then afford to pay their rent and feed their families. Despite fears of eviction, rent strikes broke out in March and April 2020, as tenants decided to withhold their limited resources to ensure that they could provide food to their families. This happened weeks before the federal eviction moratorium was enacted. When it expired months later, communities blocked eviction hearings to make sure as many people as possible could stay in their homes.

Despite widespread support for a more robust right to housing, it didn’t take long for powerful interests to begin pushing back. The real estate industry spent upwards of $100 million lobbying against pandemic eviction moratoriums at both the federal and state levels. In 2022, the Cicero Institute created a template for state legislation that would criminalize unhoused people. That model legislation would have banned encampments on public land and diverted funds from Housing First programs to short-term shelter programs, while forcing unhoused people into state-run encampments. Versions of this bill have been introduced in half a dozen states and passed in Missouri, Tennessee, and Texas.

Recently, in New York (where we live), Governor Kathy Hochul enacted a budget that prioritized the state’s wealthy residents over its poor and low-income ones. Not only did she refuse to increase taxes on the wealthiest New Yorkers and corporations, losing billions of dollars in new revenue, but her housing policies provided tax incentives to developers rather than focusing on creating stable housing for housing-insecure and homeless New Yorkers.

According to the New York Labor-Religion Coalition and the Housing Justice for All Coalition, at least 3.4 million tenants will be excluded from good-cause eviction protections, among them all upstate municipalities, while those who are eligible may not be able to exercise their rights unless they have adequate legal representation in housing court. That budget also rolls back rent-stabilization measures, making elderly tenants in particular more vulnerable to eviction, while failing to allocate a single dollar to move homeless New Yorkers into stable housing. And in all of this, New York is anything but out of the ordinary.

What You Do to the Least of These, You Do Unto Me

Although America’s political leadership is generally failing to respond to the need at hand, millennia of religious teachings have helped shape society’s views on our responsibility to care for, not punish, poor and unhoused people.

Indeed, there are over 2,000 Biblical passages that address poverty — most of them focusing on those made poor by a society that fails to provide for all our needs. As Jesus says to his followers in Matthew 25:

“[F]or I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me. Then [the nations] also will answer, Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and did not take care of you? Then [Jesus] will answer them, Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

This responsibility rests not only on individuals, but those in positions of authority in society. As Isaiah 10:2 puts it: “Woe to those who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right.” Instead, Isaiah 3:15 instructs those who make the laws and issue decrees not to “grind the face[s] of the poor,” making their already difficult conditions worse. Such teachings are consistent not just with the Abrahamic tradition but other belief systems like Hinduism, which prioritizes non-violence and non-injury as a core moral responsibility.

A law like the one now before the Supreme Court in Grants Pass v. Johnson that would punish unhoused people for simply living departs from such moral wisdom in a radical fashion. As Justice Elena Kagan pointed out during oral arguments over the case, “For a homeless person who has no place to go, sleeping in public is kind of like breathing in public.” How true! If only four other justices would see the situation similarly.

Our faith traditions and constitutional values certainly should be clear enough that it is cruel and unusual punishment to treat the homeless the way Grants Pass wants to do. The court and the nation should respond to this moral crisis with care and compassion, with housing, not handcuffs.

May it be so.

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