Johnson vs. Grants Pass questions the cruelty of arresting and ticketing Americans who are unhoused

Over 700 people rallied in front of the U.S. Supreme Court during oral arguments on Monday morning, April 22, 2024. Over 30 communities across the country held solidarity events, and nearly 5000 watched livestreams. The atmosphere was electric. (Read more about the Rally, Photo of Donald Whitehead speaking at the rally by Kevin Wolf, AP)

The case being considered by the court, City of Grants Pass v. Gloria Johnson, addresses the legality of using a blanket to keep warm when forced to sleep outdoors.

Regardless of the court’s decision, this case will not create any housing, nor directly address persistent poverty and homelessness. Rather, this case could set a precedent for municipalities to address homelessness and housing insecurity with ineffective and extreme punitive actions.

The case has sparked a national conversation about the intersection of housing policy, poverty, and civil liberties. Laws that prohibit things like sleeping, laying down or even eating in public spaces, are common, yet they reflect discriminatory practices that have led to deep inequities.

Grants Pass, Oregon, was itself a “Sundown Town” – communities that mostly sprang up during the mid-1800’s, where the movement of non-white residents was restricted after dark. Policies that continued through the 20th Century like Anti-Okie laws, Red-Lining and Jim Crow laws have all been collectively understood to be discriminatory and in violation of U.S. civil rights practices.

Yet as the Supreme Court prepares to hear this Johnson vs. Grants Pass, the situation for Americans forced to live outdoors in an increasingly unaffordable housing market sounds similar to how poor and nonwhite Americans have been treated in past centuries. A recently law in Tennessee has made sleeping outside a felony, and the Florida governor recently signed into law banning sleeping or “camping” in public spaces.

recent study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that ticketing, jailing, and displacing people forced to sleep outdoors can actually lead to significantly higher mortality among folks who are unhoused. Moreover, fines and compounded tickets lead to criminal records for otherwise law-abiding citizens, creating further barriers to getting unhoused Americans back into a home.

“The Johnson vs. Grants Pass case is monumental,” states Donald H. Whitehead, Jr., Executive Director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. “It has the potential to instigate a barrage of draconian policies that cause significant harm to people experiencing homelessness in our country.”

The National Coalition for the Homeless, dedicated to organizing a movement led by those most affected to end homelessness, calls on our communities to invest in proven housing solutions. Hundreds are expected to rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building in support of Housing, Not Handcuffs.

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