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The True Cost of Criminalizing Homelessness: Johnson v. Grants Pass and Its Social Impacts

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On any given night, more than 600,000 Americans experience homelessness according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) 2023 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress. That alarming figure only accounts for people experiencing homelessness in shelters, housing programs, or visibly in public. As such, that figure fails to capture how many Americans are couch surfing, staying in cars, or finding unsafe and unstable situations to sleep at night. The University of Chicago estimates that closer to 1 in 10 young adults in America experiences any form of homelessness at some point in their lifetimes. Rising costs of living, increasing debt, and persisting inequities among people of color and LGBTQ+ Americans emerge as lead causes of homelessness. This month, we expect a variety of Supreme Court rulings, including Johnson v. Grants Pass, that will impact people experiencing housing insecurity nationwide. 

In Johnson v. Grants Pass, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the previous ruling that individuals experiencing homelessness cannot face punishment for sleeping outside on public property when shelter is unavailable. This decision follows the precedent set by Martin v. Boise, in which Boise, Idaho saw challenges to its homelessness laws. The ruling, if upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, acknowledges that many Americans experiencing homelessness lack safe and accessible shelter and must resort to sleeping in public areas. 

Massachusetts, the only state to guarantee the right to shelter, has faced an unprecedented lack of capacity due to the influx of migrants and increased cost of living. This shortage has led to increased waiting times for emergency housing services. As a result, many individuals and families are left vulnerable, highlighting the urgent need for expanded shelter capacity and supportive housing solutions.

If the Supreme Court overturns Johnson v. Grants Pass, the ruling will not only devastate America’s most vulnerable population but also have a widespread negative impact on American taxpayers and our judicial systems. Americans who are arrested for experiencing housing insecurity will be subject to fines, criminal records, and judicial barriers that will further prevent financial and housing stability. Additionally, studies have shown that instead of criminalizing homelessness, government investment in social programs such as job training, mental health supports, and shelters provides significant savings over each taxpayer’s lifetime by reducing costs associated with long-term housing insecurity, such as emergency healthcare, law enforcement, or judicial costs.

Housing insecurity also impacts the general population, as it increases the overall burden on public resources and services. Government and philanthropic investments in social programs can alleviate these pressures by addressing root causes and promoting economic stability. Organizations like Breaktime play a crucial role in bridging the gap by providing essential services to provide stability and prevent long-term reliance on welfare. Breaktime’s effective transitional employment model empowers young adults experiencing homelessness with job training and wrap-around support services, fostering self-sufficiency.

For instance, providing stable housing and healthcare support for young adults can reduce emergency room costs by over $18,000 per person each year. States using Housing First models, like Massachusetts, save approximately $8,000 per person per year on healthcare. Breaktime’s employment model not only reduces welfare dependence but also increases tax revenue as participants gain stable employment.

Overturning Johnson v. Grants Pass will likely also exacerbate crowding and backlogging within the judicial system. Criminalizing homelessness inspires increased arrests and court cases, straining judicial resources. Studies show that Americans experiencing homelessness are disproportionately people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals; for instance, Black Americans make up 13% of the U.S. population but account for 40% of the homeless population, and LGBTQ+ youth are 120% more likely to experience homelessness. These groups already face heightened dangers within the judicial system, including significantly higher rates of police violence, harsher sentencing, and systemic discrimination. Punitive measures not only deepen judicial system inefficiencies but also disproportionately harm marginalized and already vulnerable communities, magnifying the risks they face both on the streets and within our judicial systems.

As we anticipate the Supreme Court's decision on Johnson v. Grants Pass by June 30, 2024, it's crucial to recognize the far-reaching implications of this ruling on homelessness and its long-term impacts. Overturning the verdict would not only exacerbate life-threatening conditions faced by individuals experiencing housing insecurity, but also strain public resources and judicial systems. This ruling will cost taxpayers substantially more in the long run. Protecting the rights of individuals experiencing homelessness and supporting organizations like Breaktime, which empower those experiencing homelessness through transitional employment programs with wrap-around services, are essential steps toward fostering a more equitable and stable society. 

As we navigate this next Supreme Court ruling cycle, let us advocate for policies that uplift and protect our most vulnerable populations to ensure that everyone, regardless of housing and economic status, is entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

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