SHC Statement on City of Grants Pass, Oregon v. Johnson

On Friday, June 28, 2024, the Supreme Court ruled that people experiencing homelessness can be fined and/or arrested for sleeping in a public place, even when there are no other local adequate shelter options (City of Grants Pass, Oregon v. Johnson).

SchoolHouse Connection is disappointed and saddened at this outcome. It is harmful and wrong to punish people – including youth and families – for circumstances beyond their control. It is also an ineffective strategy to address homelessness. Criminalizing homelessness is not the answer.

We do, however, concur with the Supreme Court’s acknowledgement that homelessness is “complex,” and that “[i]ts causes are many” (Opinion at 34). Today’s historic levels of homelessness represent a massive failure of public policy across multiple systems – including the homeless assistance system itself. For several decades, the federal government has focused the bulk of its resources and actions on homelessness through one federal agency (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)) and on one subpopulation: visibly homeless single adults. From the Bush Administration’s “chronic homelessness initiative” to the Biden Administration’s “All Inside” initiative on unsheltered homelessness, a near-singular focus on visible adult homelessness has eclipsed other equally vulnerable populations and other equally important federal agencies. This short-sighted and narrow approach has contributed to the very problem it was designed to solve.

Consider, for example, that many homeless adults first experienced homelessness as children or youth, did not graduate from high school, and/or suffered various adverse events at the earliest stages of life. Efforts to intervene early could have prevented their later bouts of more entrenched homelessness, as well as other tragic life outcomes. 

To truly stop the cycle of homelessness, we must expand our vision: policymakers and leaders must focus equal attention and resources on children, youth, and families: infants, toddlers, school-age children, young adults, expectant parents, and caregivers. We must center their needs in both prevention and emergency responses by pairing safe, stable, affordable housing options with a full array of trauma-informed multi-generational supports (including early care and education). To start, we must adopt an accurate definition of homelessness that takes into account the unique vulnerabilities and barriers faced by families and youth.

Every person who experiences homelessness – from before birth through old age – deserves respect and dignity. We urge local leaders to reject criminalization and to instead embrace tailored solutions to prevent and address homelessness along the full continuum of life.