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NLIHC and Lawyers’ Committee Join Amicus Brief Addressing Supreme Court Case on Criminalization of Homelessness

Amicus brief argues that criminalization fails to address root causes of homelessness and only exacerbates the crisis

Washington, D.C. – The National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law along with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities submitted today an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court supporting the rights of unhoused people in the case of City of Grants Pass, Oregon v. Johnson. The court will soon decide whether localities that have failed to address the affordable housing and shelter needs of their community can issue fines or arrest people experiencing homelessness for sleeping outside even when there is no adequate housing or shelter.

 “Punishing people for not being able to afford a roof over their heads in a time of skyrocketing rents violates the Constitution and hits Black communities especially hard,” said Thomas Silverstein, associate director of the Fair Housing & Community Development Project at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “Affordable housing and supportive services, not fines and possible jail time, are actual solutions to homelessness.”

“Decades of research show that the most effective approach to ending homelessness is an affordable home – not arrests or fines that further punish individuals who are struggling to survive,” said NLIHC president and CEO Diane Yentel. “The Supreme Court must uphold the constitution and protect unhoused people from policymakers who choose cruel and counterproductive measures, such as fines and arrests, over greater investments in proven and humane solutions. Homelessness is solvable, if policymakers at all levels of government act with urgency to invest in what we know works to move unsheltered people into homes.”

In the amicus brief, the organizations urge the Supreme Court to find that the ordinance at issue in the case violates the Constitution’s 8th Amendment banning cruel and unusual punishment. The amicus brief explains that homelessness is primarily driven by our nation’s worsening affordable housing crisis, with America’s lowest-income and most marginalized renters facing a severe shortage of homes affordable and available to them, and an ever-widening gap between incomes and housing costs. Ticketing, fining, or arresting unhoused individuals for sleeping outside when there is no adequate shelter or housing does not address these root causes of homelessness and instead exacerbates the homelessness crisis while fueling racial inequities.

The Supreme Court case comes amidst a growing wave of state and local policymakers adopting outdated, dehumanizing, and counterproductive measures, such as tickets and arrests, rather than proven solutions to homelessness. Inhumane ordinances of the kind at issue in the case make homelessness worse by disrupting relationships with service providers who are working to connect unhoused individuals to permanent housing, and they saddle individuals with debt and arrest and conviction records that make it harder to access necessary housing and employment. Fines and arrests also disproportionately harm Black and Indigenous people, who are overly represented among those who experience homelessness due to longstanding, systemic racism in housing and other sectors.

Instead, the approach proven to be most effective in addressing homelessness is providing affordable, accessible housing and voluntary supportive services, including case management, healthcare, and behavioral health services.

Rather than arresting people for being unhoused, policymakers at the local, state, and federal levels should use all available tools to address the affordable housing crisis that fuels homelessness and help unhoused people move into homes with access to voluntary supportive services.

The court will hear oral arguments on April 22, and a decision is expected in June.

Read the brief here.