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On Criminalizing Homelessness

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The Supreme Court case today over criminalizing homelessness has a lot of interest to me, largely because it comes from Grants Pass, a small town I know well in southwestern Oregon. As I’ve talked about a good bit, these issues of homelessness have multiple factors and a lot of the conversation around this tends to focus on a single-issue that is supposed to solve everything. The Build More people are fundamentally correct, yes, but when you are talking about fentanyl addicts and people who have untreated mental illness, which is a non-negligible part of the homeless population, you aren’t solving that by building more. Moreover, in a place like Grants Pass, which is a conservative place largely getting more conservative because of right-wing Californians moving up and cashing in and choosing to live in counties such as Josephine County that are so anti-tax that they can’t even have functional policing, an issue it has only recently addressed, you have a situation where a lot of locals are going to hate the homeless and hate everything one could do about the homeless except lock them up. So it’s a bad scene down there.

It’s pretty clear the conservatives on the Court are going to let localities do whatever they want to the homeless. I’m not surprised. It fits their psychotic form of governance. It does seem to me though that one part of the solution needs to be that if we are going to effectively criminalize homelessness, we also need to criminalize actions that force people into homelessness. In other words, we need an actual right to housing that the government–whether at the federal, state, or local level–must provide and to not do so is also illegal. Because while some of those people in Grants Pass are messed up and probably don’t want to live in whatever housing is available to them, some of them are older people who have slipped through the cracks and simply have no money after living a tough life, being widowed, etc. Everyone deserves the right to safe housing and we should articulate it as a positive right that must be solved through policy and the courts.

I don’t see how criminalizing homelessness is going to solve the problems. Fining the homeless is ridiculous on the face of it. But like a lot of issues, we are talking about a complex set of problems where no one really wants to wade into the complexity because to do so would be to knock them off their talking points, and that’s across the political spectrum.

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