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Tue. Jul 16th, 2024

Seattle advocates and elected officials respond to Grants Pass ruling | July 10-16, 2024

By meerna Jul11,2024
Seattle advocates and elected officials respond to Grants Pass ruling | July 10-16, 2024

On June 28, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in favor of the city of Grants Pass in Grants Pass v. Johnson, allowing cities to impose fines and penalties for camping and other activities that, on their face, appear neutral. The ruling overturned a precedent set by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which had held that camping bans may be unconstitutional, arguing that they effectively criminalize homelessness and violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

The decision fell along party lines: six conservative Republican-appointed judges ruled in favor of Grants Pass, while three liberal Democratic-appointed judges sided with Gloria Johnson and other homeless residents of Grants Pass.

Mixed reactions

Local homeless advocates like Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, say the ruling could embolden local governments to tighten their strict anti-homeless policies.

“While this ruling opens the door for local jurisdictions to do terrible things to their constituents who are unhoused, we and our many allies will work hard to ensure that does not happen,” Eisinger said.

In Seattle and King County, officials’ reactions were mixed. On the conservative side, Burien Mayor Kevin Schilling welcomed the decision, saying it justified the city’s camping ban, which advocates criticized as an attempt to “drive out” homeless people. Similarly, Republican Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison issued a statement praising the Supreme Court for recognizing that “setting policy to address homelessness is a job for local elected leaders.” When asked, a Davison spokesman declined to comment further.

Davison was one of many city leaders across the country to file a “friend of the court” brief in support of Grants Pass. It appears to have been an effective strategy, as Justice Neil Gorsuch directly cited the brief in his majority opinion when discussing Seattle’s high shelter rejection rates. In fact, Gorsuch seemed to draw much of his research directly from the brief; he also cited a brief filed by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs that claimed more than 40% of shootings in Seattle were related to encampments. But that figure is a quote from a police officer from a four-month period in early 2022 and has not been corroborated. The vast majority of cities, counties, and states that filed briefs in the case sided with Grants Pass.

While Davison welcomed the decision, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell said it would have no impact on the city’s homelessness policy. In a written statement, Harrell spokeswoman Callie Craighead said the city will continue its actions to remove homeless people from the Unified Care Team (UCT), including offering shelter when available, regardless of what the Supreme Court does.

“Our approach to addressing encampments is driven by data, best practices and our values ​​— and the Supreme Court’s decision will not impact that approach,” Craighead said.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee struck a similar tone, issuing a statement saying that “the court’s ruling does not change our commitment to working with local communities to connect people with housing and services so we can get people back on their feet, not just shuffle them from one camp site to another.”

The ruling could impact the King County Sheriff’s Office’s (KCSO) lawsuit against Burien over its camping ban. However, KCSO spokesman Sergeant Eric White said in an email that the department “remains steadfast in our position that Burien’s ordinance violates those rights.”

Amy Enbysk, a spokeswoman for King County Executive Dow Constantine, agreed that the county still considers Burien’s camping ban illegal because of the lack of due process. Specifically, the county has issues with the city manager’s ability to unilaterally define what acts can be criminalized and in which areas of the city it is illegal to sleep. But Enbysk acknowledged that Burien will now have an easier time writing a constitutional camping ban without the restrictions previously imposed by the 9th Circuit.

For providers, the Grants Pass ruling could make their jobs even harder. Already faced with the impossible task of trying to get people off the streets when there aren’t enough affordable homes, the fines and penalties could push even more people into housing instability.

“You can ask any provider, any person who has been homeless and wants to get a new home, what the barriers are, and they will never say, ‘I didn’t have enough time in jail,’” said Jeremiah Hayden, a reporter for the Portland-based street newspaper Street Roots. “‘I didn’t have enough time in jail, that’s why I didn’t get housing; Oh, I didn’t have enough debt, that’s why I didn’t get housing.’ That’s just not true. So adding those things will actually make the crisis worse.”

Lisa Edge, communications director for the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA), the government body responsible for coordinating homeless services and shelters across the county, wrote in an email to Real Change that the ruling could negatively impact her clients.

“As a member of the larger homelessness response, the Grants Pass ruling is devastating, and we are concerned about the impact it will have on our homeless neighbors,” Edge wrote. “Criminalizing homelessness leads to further displacement and harm. This ruling does not change the fact that housing is a basic human need. Housing solves homelessness. We will continue to advocate for proven strategies to end the crisis.”

Dark history

For some, the Grants Pass ruling continues an ugly history of oppression and discrimination against Black, Brown, Indigenous, poor and other dispossessed people in America.

In a statement released June 28, Chief Seattle Club Executive Director Derrick Belgarde said Grants Pass v. Johnson is part of a long list of racist policies by the U.S. government toward indigenous people.

“Indigenous people in Seattle, King County and across the country continue to face the highest rates of homelessness resulting from removal and relocation policies,” Belgarde wrote.

In a similar statement, Western Regional Advocacy Project Executive Director Paul Boden compared Grants Pass to the infamous 1857 decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford, in which the Supreme Court explicitly sanctioned slavery for black people and stripped them of citizenship.

“Back in the 1800s, up until 1974, communities had what they called ‘ugly laws’: If you looked so sick and maimed and broken that you were considered ‘ugly,’ you were fined or sent to jail,” Boden said. “So (in) this country (there’s) this colonization mentality. There’s ‘us’ who run the shit in this town. And then there’s ‘you,’ who we don’t want in our community.”

According to the Equal Justice Initiative, the crimes of vagrancy and hoboism were revived in the post-Civil War Southern states along with the practice of convict leasing. These “black codes” were used by former slave owners to suppress blacks and exploit their labor under the guise of the criminal justice system. Despite the gains made during the Civil Rights Movement in the mid-20th century, scholar Michelle Alexander noted in her seminal book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness that the practice of prison slavery continues in the form of mass incarceration.

With the advent of the opioid epidemic, the discourse on homelessness has become so intertwined with substance use disorder that it has begun to resemble the prison framework of the war on drugs, according to Hayden, a reporter for Street Roots.

“If you ask someone about homelessness, you’re two steps away from them talking about drugs,” he said.

Eisinger said the Grants Pass ruling confirms that the United States is a distinctly class-based society in which people who are poor, disabled, Black, brown, Indigenous, queer, transgender or otherwise marginalized are more likely to face repression simply for being themselves.

“I think this is a decision that probably has the most to do with the notion that we have different classes of people in this country,” Eisenger said. “Some people will be allowed to fall asleep on a bus or get away with a minor offense based on what they look like or where they live, and some people will have the full force of the law brought against them.”

For Boden, the Grants Pass ruling simply underscored the need to organize and fight for policies that advance justice, like building public housing and dismantling the prison-industrial complex to end homelessness.

“Until we address the racism and classism that drive it, we will continue to have mass homelessness in this country,” Boden said.

Guy Oron is a reporter for Real Change. He covers our weekly news. Find them on Twitter, @GuyOron.

By meerna

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