OpinionHomelessness

Criminalizing Homelessness: Supreme Court Case Gives Us a Chance to Change the Narrative

The Grants Pass decision will shape the way cities address homelessness in ways that may challenge housing advocates, but it also represents the best opportunity we've had in decades to change the narrative on homelessness and build stronger public will for housing.

The United States Supreme Court. Photo by Anthony Quintano, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0

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This week, I joined hundreds of people in my community in Central Florida—and many others across the U.S.—to protest the movement to criminalize homelessness, in a country where many people cannot find housing they can afford.

While the Supreme Court deliberated the Grants Pass v. Johnson case this week, protestors gathered outside the court—and across the nation—to show support for people experiencing homelessness. Above, Tiffany Manuel stands with Florida Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-Florida) during a protest in Central Florida. Photo courtesy of Tiffany Manuel

We showed up on the day the Supreme Court was hearing arguments in Grants Pass v. Johnson, which takes up the question of whether local governments can fine or arrest people for sleeping outside even though they do not offer them a safe place to shelter overnight.

Many housing organizations have been sounding the alarm for decades that homelessness is a housing issue, that housing should be a human right, that housing must come first in our efforts to help those who are unsheltered, and that the racial and gender composition of who is homeless is a legacy of systems of oppression that we must redress if we want to see real health and well-being in our communities.

And that’s just a starter list!

My fellow advocates and I were protesting the most basic elements of this case: Can you really be arrested for being unhoused? Is arresting people really the best use of our limited public safety resources? How will arresting people who are already so vulnerable that they sleep in our streets make anything better for anybody?

As I looked at the folks around me, I felt the strength we had in numbers. By showing up, we showed the broader American public our solidarity with folks experiencing homelessness right now, even as the Supreme Court takes up something Americans already seem to know: that arresting people is not the best solution to the problems we face. (Thanks to our partners at the Housing Narrative Lab, we have the latest survey data to prove this sentiment.)

Still, I knew that no matter how many picket signs we waved or justifiably angry and passionate testimonies we gave, on this day we were unlikely to convince these justices, or our state legislators, to side with us.

The SCOTUS decision, no matter which way it lands, will not be the beginning or the end of this fight.

So, what’s the goal (or the assignment) for those of us who know that criminalizing homelessness is not the answer?

At TheCaseMade, we talk about this often with advocates in our communities. We agree on this: the goal is to get the bystanders off the fence. The bystanders are the millions of people who are oblivious to what’s happening, may not care very much about this case (because they don’t see how it directly affects them), and are deeply engaged in their own battles, trying to keep their heads above water.

We may not win in the Supreme Court. But we’d better start winning in the wider court of public opinion.

When the Supreme Court releases its decision later this year—and in the lead-up to that unknown date—every TV, radio, cable, print, and online news outlet will carry the story. For those of us who are more vocal on these issues and will be asked to comment, what should we say when we look into a camera and speak into a microphone held by a reporter?

As advocates, we have a classic choice of two tomorrows—each with a different pathway to it—in how we play this out.

On path No. 1, we talk about homelessness the way we always have and get the same results we’ve always gotten: opposition from some, indifference from many, heartburn and anxiety for ourselves, and lack of action or even pushback when it comes to the solutions we know work.

On path No. 2, we persuade differently and change the energy of the conversation—getting more people to join us on our journey to justice and more people into the housing they need and deserve.

The Well-Worn Path

What do we normally do? We tell people what an awful thing homelessness is, and recount the most graphic horror stories about people being arrested, jailed, or fined for living on the streets. We hope and pray that someone, anyone, is listening carefully and that they care enough to act.

We recount statistics and explain Housing First. We say it’s not right for our communities to leave so many people without shelter and then blame them for their own plight. We talk about the disproportionate number of people of color who make up the growing numbers of people on the street and the housing insecure—and why they are overrepresented. We try to work in something about housing insecurity being a function of a long history of racist housing policies that have always made it more difficult to find, afford, own, and keep land in this country if you are not rich and white. And, we say that we have to continue to lean into policies, like Housing First, that have a track record of working.

We are passionate when we say all of those things. We feel vindicated for a few moments at the end of these interviews and conversations—because we have said the things that needed to be said.

The results are dictated by what I call the law of thirds.

A third of the people who hear us simply do not care and go back to watching Netflix.

Another third stop for a moment to watch the spectacle of our speech—the way they watch a fight on TikTok or scroll through celebrity gossip.

The remaining third hears our voices and thinks, “It’s such a shame that so many people are in jeopardy.” They shake their heads, feel sorry, think they should do more to help—and then go back to whatever they were doing before they saw the news report, no smarter than they were before about the issues, the solutions, the systems that need to be changed, and what their role in them could be. They feel demoralized, not energized. They feel defeated, not victorious. They feel afraid, not bold and fearless.

What do we need? Bold, fearless, energized people who smell a good fight and are poised to be victorious. People who want good things and feel like there is a real possibility that those good things are possible.

So how do we get them to that place? Well, there is another road.

The Road Less Taken—An Alternative Pathway

Our alternative is to take this opportunity to talk in a different way to the people who are watching—the bystanders who don’t know why they should care enough to get involved—and tell them how they can respond. We won’t just talk about how awful homelessness is, and how terrible criminalizing it can be. Instead, we’ll use the conversations that we’ll be having with reporters all over this country in the coming weeks to create an echo chamber of people making the case for what we really want. That’s abundant housing options for everyone in our nation, starting with those who are unhoused and most in need!

Here’s how to do it:

1. Position the decision WE get to make. We don’t get to decide Grants Pass v. Johnson, or vote on a piece of legislation in our state house of representatives, but we do get to choose from a different set of options.

Here’s how it sounds:

Thank you [Reporter X] for asking me about this issue. I care very deeply about making sure everyone in our community has a roof over their head, and I’m not waiting around for the Supreme Court to make its decision because I’ve already made mine. Every person in this nation deserves to share in the prosperity and abundance of the world we have created together. And there’s a growing coalition of everyday people, like me, who are rising to the occasion.

2. Speak to the momentum, energy, and excitement that we see building around our collective action. Who’s working by your side to advance abundant housing and end homelessness?

Here’s how it sounds:

At my organization, we’re working with community members and business leaders every day to make sure that we create more abundant housing options and more people get to experience the best of what this community has to offer.

3. Endorse immigrants’ rights—without explicitly saying it. We don’t want the politicization of immigration and migrants to become a dividing line that pulls people away from the broader coalition that we’re building. We must take on the issue now, before it gets ahead of us.

Here’s how it sounds:

We’re working hard with neighbors all over this community to do everything we can to ensure that every person—no matter where they come from or what brought them here—has a place to live.

4. Tell people we have solutions. Say this early and often to stop people from saying “We have to find solutions …”

Here’s how it sounds:

The smartest investment we can make is showing our unhoused neighbors that they are loved and cared for—and we do that through our compassionate response to their hardship using thoughtful solutions that cosign our compassion and get a roof over their heads as quickly as possible. Those solutions aren’t always easy but they exist, they work, and they are often less destructive and less costly than what we see playing out today.

5. Frame the conversation we should be having.

Here’s how it sounds:

This should never be a conversation about whether we should destroy the makeshift tents that people have tried to make into homes in our streets or about forcing people into places that make them feel even more vulnerable. The conversation we NEED to have is: How do we get everyone in our communities involved in solving homelessness? And how can we get our communities to commit to abundant housing options for all?

6. Get people into the future. This is a skill referred to as “future pacing.”

Here’s how it sounds:

How we show up right now as a community is not about a Supreme Court decision, it is about our future. And if we fail to show up for that future, by acknowledging the real hardships that many in our communities face today, we will get a front row seat to the fallout of our choices, as more people are forced to live in our streets, in our jails, in our hospitals, camp in front of our businesses and in our parking lots, outside city hall, and in our parks.

You and I, together, get to make that decision. We either: (1) figure out a way to lean into the abundant and prosperous community that we are, by providing better housing options that acknowledge the hardships many people are facing OR (2) watch as ever more inhumane and short-sighted approaches to homelessness emerge and swell the number of people who are living in our streets.

7. Show your resolve and commitment. And underscore why those on the side of housing justice will win.

Here’s how it sounds:

The Supreme Court’s decision later this year won’t change the decision I have made. Knowing the justices are considering this case only increases my resolve to bring more neighbors to this fight. And here’s why we will win: Every person in my community is asking for more abundant housing options. That’s where the common ground and energy is!

I believe strongly that we can make the case for abundant housing and ending homelessness. Together with the National Alliance to End Homelessness, my team at TheCaseMade, the will-building organization I founded, wrote the playbook on how to do it.

Hope to see you on path No. 2!

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