Forum: Supreme Court shouldn’t allow punishment for homelessness

Regardless of the outcome, communities should seek out solutions, not penalties, for homelessness.

By Chad Hansen / Herald Forum

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a case that will have important repercussions for how cities and local governments can respond to homelessness.

In this case, City of Grants Pass v. Johnson, the Court will consider whether cities can criminalize and punish homelessness when there is not adequate shelter space for them.

Homelessness is not a new problem in Snohomish County, and everyone has an opinion on its causes and solutions. One thing that has not shown any success in solving homelessness or addressing public safety is punishment. Whether it is fines, arrests, jail time or new criminal records; it is hard to imagine how criminalization will address any of the causes of homelessness or help unhoused residents of Snohomish County achieve housing stability in the short or long term. Mostly these measures will just alleviate our own discomfort at having to see homeless people in public and push them further from the centrally located resources that currently exist to serve them.

Like many regions, Snohomish County is facing a housing shortage that has driven up housing costs and displaced many of our community members or added new members to our community fleeing the higher costs in King County. Adapting and responding to this shortage is important. How we adapt and respond is more important. Homeless individuals can already face criminalization for public camping if there is adequate shelter space that they refuse.

A bad ruling by the Supreme Court in the Grants Pass case would allow cities to wash their hands of the obligation to provide shelter space or services before they can use criminalization as a tool. In short, cities would have no responsibility to provide a compassionate response to how we serve the least among us before going straight to punishment.

It does not have to be this way though. Even if the Supreme Court reaches a harmful conclusion in the Grants Pass case, local communities can come together and continue to follow the current practice that requires shelter and support options before going straight to criminalization options that are shown to increase costs and have a negligible effect on keeping the public safe.

As the Snohomish County community continues to discuss this important topic, we need to look for approaches that will move us forward, not backward.

Chad Hansen is an attorney and the Fair Housing Program manager for the Housing Authority of Snohomish County. He lives in Mountlake Terrace with his family.

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