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Home | Newsroom | Housing | Will the Supreme Court Criminalize Poverty and Homelessness And if it does, what will California do?

Will the Supreme Court Criminalize Poverty and Homelessness And if it does, what will California do?

Advocates working to house California’s homeless population exhaled last week when a bill designed to criminalize poverty, SB 1011, didn’t make it out of committee and onto the Legislature’s floor for a vote.

That bill would prohibit people from sitting, sleeping or placing personal property, among other actions, or face fines and incarceration—the worst possible approach to ending this crisis. It isn’t designed to reduce the number of unhoused people, only to make them disappear from view.

Our moment of relief, however, was just that, a moment. The U.S. Supreme Court is now considering Grants Pass v Johnson, and it is entirely possible that the federal government will green light the same cruel policies criminalizing homeless people that nationally we are fighting to avert here in California.

The question to be decided by the Grants Pass case is whether a federal court can determine state policy with regard to homelessness.

In a class-action lawsuit, a group of homeless people sued Grants Pass, Oregon for making sleeping on public property illegal. Their argument: sleep is a physical need, Grants Pass has no shelters and the city is criminalizing not their behavior, but their poverty. The district court issued an injunction, halting enforcement of the law, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, writing that the city’s law violates the Eight Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.’

The Western Center joined with other civic organizations to file an amici brief with the U.S Supreme Court on April 2. The brief asserts that cities across California have unfairly scapegoated unhoused residents for a statewide affordable housing crisis that State and local governments created with decades of virulently racist anti-housing policies. As a result, thousands of long-time residents, disproportionately people of color, have been forced onto the streets. But instead of addressing the root causes of the affordable housing crisis,  California cities punish homeless residents, fining or arresting them for being poor.

But here’s what else should be understood about anti-homelessnes measures at the state and federal level that criminalize the poor; they pose a specific threat to Black people already suffering due to the state’s draconian and racially imbalanced policing laws and practices.

For context, these inhumane rhetoric and policies are surging alongside hyperbolic discourse about increased criminality supposedly plaguing our cities. The data, however, tells a different story. For example, violent crime declined 13% in 2013 according to the FBI. Similarly, retail theft appears to be down nationally.

But these policies are not just inhumane. They are anti-Black.

This shift toward punitive housing policies is occurring at a socio-political moment. Even the goal of racial justice is under attack. A drive for turning a blind eye to the racialized impact of these policy decisions, is the issue of the day.

Worse, California, the big blue progressive beacon of America, is leading the nation, not with effective policy solutions but rather with disproven policy proposals, steeped in anti-Blackness.

How do we know?

The data tells the tale. Black Californians are disproportionately impacted by houselessness and all of the on-ramps to houselessness: rental burden, evictions, and systems contact, to name a few. According to the Benioff Homeless and Housing Initiative, Black Californians make up 7 percent of the population but “represent more than a quarter of the state’s homeless population.” In addition, 70 percent of unsheltered people experiencing houselessness report a history of incarceration. The intersections between the criminal legal system and houseless are apparent from all available data.

For example, the 2024 Racial and Identity Profiling Advisory Board report shows that traffic stops continue to be racially driven. Specifically, the data shows that “Black individuals were stopped 131.5 percent more frequently than expected given their proportion of the population.” Moreover, Black people are searched at a rate of 1.66 times greater than White people, despite the fact the contraband is found on Black and Hispanic people less and no action is taken after a stop and search more often.

The disparities in police and systems contact don’t stop there. A report by the Lawyer’s Committee on Civil Rights in San Francisco analyzed non-traffic stops and found that “among people who were issued a citation under local codes as a result of non-traffic stops, Black adults were up to 9.7 times more likely to receive citations than white adults.” It also found that Black men are incarcerated at a rate nearly 5 times their share of the male population California. Black women, it determined, are incarcerated at a rate “more than 4 times higher than their share of all women in California.”

It is this population, over-policed, over-incarcerated, forcibly impoverished by the unequal application law and often pushed into homelessness, that stands to suffer the most from Grants Pass and will suffer locally if SB1011 lives on –which although held up could still yet come to the floor for a vote.

Of course, none of this is unknown to the state. I was lucky enough to testify before the state’s Reparations Task Force on the issues of homelessness and gentrification highlighting this issue. And last week I testified at the Senate subcommittee.

 

We must face the reality that houselessness is a distinctly racialized problem. It requires solutions that actually consider those most severely impacted.

The Supreme Court’s decision is likely months away, but our decision should be made how. In criminalizing the poorest and most vulnerable among us, we would be adopting not only a failed strategy, but simultaneously doing something even worse: morally impoverishing ourselves.

This article has been updated since it’s original posting.