Advocates Anxiously Await SCOTUS Decision Criminalised Homelessness

NC NEWSLINE—Latonya Agard, executive director of NC Coalition to End Homelessness, is anxiously awaiting the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Grants Pass v. Johnson, an Oregon case testing a city ordinance that prohibits people experiencing homelessness from sleeping in public.

An unfavorable ruling in the case, which is expected to be decided by the end of the month, could have severe consequences for the nearly 10,000 people in North Carolina who are experiencing homelessness, Agard said this week during a statewide conference where advocates gathered to discuss topics impacting people experiencing homelessness.

Across the country, there are nearly 327,000 people who are homeless, according to most recent U.S. Census data. States with the highest population of homeless people per 10,000 people include California, Oregon, Washington and Montana, according to five-year estimates in the American Community Survey.

One big concern, Agard said, is that more people experiencing homelessness will find themselves involved in the judicial system if the high court rules in favor of the city of Grants Pass.

“This can be a sort of a snowball effect for people who are already on the brink, who are experiencing homelessness, because this means if that happens, you’re justice involved, so you may have something on your criminal record,” Agard said.

Agard was part of a panel at the Bringing Home 2024: Ending Homelessness in NC conference that discussed the court case and its implications. The two-day conference was hosted by the N.C. Housing Coalition, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and the N.C. Coalition to End Homelessness.

People with criminal records find it more difficult to find permanent housing, have more health concerns and health issues and are forced to move further away from the resources they need, Agard said.

“So, this is a way to sort of push people from our perspective, out of sight, and probably into even more uninhabitable areas,” she said. “So, what maybe happens is we’ll have more people sleeping out in wooded areas and other places that are more hidden from public view.”

Agard also predicts that a ruling in favor of Grants Pass could lead to the judicial system being “overrun” with people who must show up in court to face criminal charges because they have nowhere to sleep.

Black people and other people of color will be disproportionately impacted if there’s a move to further increase the criminalization of homelessness, Agard said. Fifty-two percent of North Carolina’s homeless population is Black, she said.

“In my mind, I think about, you know, the 80s, stop and frisk in New York, and so I see this almost as an opportunity for that to be re-birthed, or reiterated in a different way,” Agard said.

“Stop-and-frisk” was a controversial New York City Police Department practice of temporarily detaining, questioning and at times searching civilians and suspects on the street for weapons and other contraband. It was ultimately found to be unconstitutional.

Some legal advocates for people experiencing homelessness believe a court ruling in favor of Grants Pass would restrict use of the Eighth Amendment in the fight against the criminalization of homelessness. The amendment guards against excessive bail, fines and cruel and unusual punishment.

Based on comments the justices made during oral arguments, Dan Siegel, deputy legal director, ACLU of North Carolina, believes the court will deliver a mixed ruling.

“I think that it is unlikely that the Eighth Amendment will sort of be blown up in this context and cease to function as a protection for homeless people,” Siegel said.  “I also think it’s unlikely that this decision would be sort of a full-throated endorsement of the Eighth Amendment and the rights of unhoused people.”

The middle ground, Siegel said, can be found in the amicus brief filed by the Biden administration, which confirms that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the criminalization of homelessness but argues that it must be used on an individual basis.

“The Eighth Amendment prohibits criminalizing homelessness, but you have to do that on an individualized basis because for someone, it may be truly impossible for them to sleep anywhere except the ground outside in public,” Siegel said. “For other people, that might not be true and if it’s truly not impossible for them, then they can be prosecuted, because they perhaps do have somewhere else to go, they do not have to be outside.”

Stephanie Watkins-Cruz, director of housing policy with the N.C. Housing Coalition, said the criminalization of people experiencing homelessness is not the direction the nation needs to be headed.

She noted that some cities in North Carolina have adopted ordinances that allow public safety officers to arrest or ticket people for sleeping outside.

Charlotte, for example, recently adopted an ordinance that critics say disproportionately affects people experiencing homelessness. The law makes sleeping on benches, public defecation, panhandling, public drinking, public masturbation and trespassing arrestable offenses. The were previously ticketed offenses.

“That creates a lot of additional barriers to people experiencing homelessness that are already facing a lot of extreme challenges,” Watkins-Cruz said.

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