More News:

July 03, 2024

Philly homeless advocates fear Supreme Court's ruling encourages 'criminalizing poverty'

The decision raises questions about punitive enforcement, affordable housing and what's happening in Kensington.

Government Homelessness

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Grants Pass v. Johnson uphead the Oregon city's ordinance banning homeless encampments. The case has some Philadelphia homeless advocates worried about what it could mean in neighborhoods like Kensington, shown above near McPherson Square.

The way U.S. cities treat their homeless residents could be powerfully shaped by last week's Supreme Court ruling upholding the right of local governments to enforce bans on sleeping in public places.

In the case out of Grants Pass, Oregon, the court's conservative majority found that fining people living in public encampments, even when they have no other options for shelter, does not violate the 8th Amendment's protections against cruel and unusual punishment. The 6-3 decision ended years of legal battles over the policy and now presents stark questions about whether more cities, including Philadelphia, could take an aggressive turn in their policies toward homeless people.

"My fear is that we're targeting poverty. We're criminalizing poverty and we don't have solutions," Philadelphia City Councilmember Kendra Brooks, of the Working Families Party, said of the decision. "We don't have housing stock that's affordable. What is the solution? We can't arrest ourselves out of homelessness."

Brooks is one of many concerned lawmakers around the country who spoke out about the importance of the case before the Supreme Court reached its decision. She publicly challenged common misconceptions about homeless people, including the belief that most don't have jobs. Experience taught Brooks otherwise while navigating Philadelphia's monthslong encampment protests on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and outside the Philadelphia Housing Authority's Ridge Avenue headquarters in 2020.

"I saw folks that were coming home (to the encampments) from work every day," Brooks said. "They were security guards and supermarket clerks. Various jobs, but they just did not have a place to stay."

After the Supreme Court ruling, Philadelphia's Office of Homeless Services affirmed its support for those who live on the city's streets.

"We firmly believe that a person who is experiencing homelessness and does not have any place but outdoors to sleep should not be classified as a criminal," an OHS spokesperson said. "They are human beings who do not deserve to be criminally punished with fines simply for existing."

Philadelphia's homeless population stood at about 4,700 people in 2023, according to OHS data collected during an annual census conducted during the winter. In each year since 2017, between 16% and 18% of the city's homeless have survived outside the system of shelters and transitional housing by sleeping in public areas. 

Although Philadelphia's laws contain language that gives police the authority to compel homeless people to move from public areas, efforts must first be made to direct these individuals to appropriate resources. In some cases, police may issue citations to people blocking sidewalks, but there isn't a specific ban on sleeping in public. 

"There's nothing exactly like the Grants Pass ordinance, but there are some restrictions that the city can use selectively," said Eric Tars, senior policy director at the National Homelessness Law Center. "On the whole, over the past five to 10 years, Philadelphia has generally tried to take at least a 'better practice' approach — certainly not best practices."

The Parkway and PHA encampments were examples of the city acting cautiously to avoid having to use police force to break up housing protests, which included both activists and unsheltered people. At the time, a federal court had ruled that the city could "terminate and dissolve" both encampments, but officials relented at the urging of Brooks and two of her colleagues, Councilmember Jamie Gauthier and former Councilmember Helen Gym. Things could have played out differently had they not stepped in to extend negotiations and reach a resolution for the encampments to end.

"That's where it was leaning and that's why we intervened," Brooks said.

But in places like Kensington — where homelessness, drug addiction and violence are intertwined — former Mayor Jim Kenney's administration conducted a number of encampment resolutions meant to drive people out of certain areas after they declined the city's treatment and shelter services.

Mayor Cherelle Parker has since ramped up the city's intervention in Kensington, declaring a public safety emergency there and pledging to follow a multi-step process to improve quality of life in the neighborhood. OHS cited the city's clearing of a two-block area of Kensington's "opioid corridor" in May as an example of the city's success. A total of 59 people were placed in treatment or shelter housing as a result of the outreach and enforcement, which was heavily criticized by some homeless advocates and organizations familiar with the challenges unhoused people face in Kensington. 

"If you don't provide an adequate alternative place for people to be, then sweeping them off of one street or out from one bridge doesn't actually solve the problem. It just moves it somewhere else," Tars said. "I'm concerned that the city recently has been moving in the wrong direction and that they haven't been ensuring that there's places for people to go that actually meet their needs. What we're seeing is just a really expensive misuse of city resources."

Brooks worries that the Supreme Court ruling could justify Philadelphia becoming more aggressive with homeless people in areas it deems to be in crisis, like Kensington.

"The way things are handled varies from administration to administration, and I'm not really sure how this administration is choosing to handle it," Brooks said. "The areas that are grey and left open for interpretation, it kind of gives them room to enforce it in a different way."

In June, the city sent more police officers into Kensington as the next step in its improvement plan. Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel insisted that "being unsheltered is not illegal," but he also said the city won't tolerate public drug use by people living on the street.

The intensity of the problems in Kensington and the focus they receive sometimes distorts the full picture of Philadelphia's homeless population.

"The vast majority of people experiencing homelessness are not using drugs and don't have mental health issues. They are there because of the lack of affordable housing," Tars said. "It's only the people who do have addiction or mental issues who are very visibly homeless because they can't take care of their other basic health and hygiene. Most people, you walk past them on the street and you'd never even know. They're working next to you. They're in class next to you. ... They're trying to hide the fact that they're homeless because they are embarrassed and our society stigmatizes people without homes."

A spokesperson for Bethesda Project, whose network of homeless shelters has served the Philly area for decades, said the Supreme Court ruling detracts from the dire need to create more affordable housing.

"We believe that housing is a human right, and individuals who are unhoused should not be subjected to punitive approaches that cause harm and impede their ability to move forward," said Alison Houghton, the organization's development and communications manager. "We call on our local leaders to continue this thoughtful and transparent approach and focus on proven solutions like increasing affordable housing options and funding necessary social services."

Extreme low-income housing that can help homeless people get off the street has been difficult for advocates to secure in Philadelphia. The resolution of the encampments in 2020 included commitments from the city and the PHA to each turn over 25 properties to the Philadelphia Community Land Trust, a nonprofit that aims to place vulnerable people in properties they can afford, along with other pledges.

Nearly four years later, PHA confirmed it has turned over 16 properties, which are now leased by residents who serve on the nonprofit's advisory council. From the city's side of the agreement, the organization has been required to go through the same competitive process that for-profit developers must follow to obtain properties from the Philadelphia Land Bank, and the nonprofit's leaders say they don't have the money to do that.

"You have to have all your financing up front, all your plans up front, your contractors lined up. ... They were basically like, 'Here, homeless people, you can have some houses if you can get a couple million dollars of financing lined up," said Daniel Moffat, who serves on the board of Philadelphia Community Land Trust.

The nonprofit is now trying to engage the Parker administration to show how its approach helps homeless people take ownership of their lives. They continue to work with the PHA on the transfer of additional homes from its stock of properties in the city. 

"The real difference is that we're actively organizing with the folks that live in the houses. We're trying to get their buy-in and feedback and implement their policy decisions," Moffat said. "When we're doing tenant selection, it's other folks who have been homeless and some who are still squatters doing interviews to make judgment calls about the best fit and who's in the most need."

The Parker administration has stated it wants to create or preserve 30,000 new housing units — including both affordable and market rate properties — but questions remain about how much of it will cater to those in the most dire circumstances. Plans for a tiny home village that had been included in the 2020 encampment resolution have since been dropped by the new administration.

Sterling Johnson, who also serves on the board of the Philadelphia Community Land Trust, said he's frustrated that discussions about affordable housing too often leave out the importance of creating and preserving enough subsidized housing for those who truly need it to avoid being homeless. With federal contracts for housing vouchers nearing expiration at many properties in Philadelphia, finding places to live is becoming increasingly difficult for people with the lowest incomes. The Supreme Court's ruling on encampments in public places can be interpreted as sending a harsh message to anyone in the midst of that struggle.

"It seems really clear," Johnson said. "The quiet part not being said out loud is, 'Poor people, just go and die somewhere else where we're not liable for you.'"

Brooks said no amount of enforcement against homeless people will change the fact that the solution requires having enough homes that they can afford to live in as they make their difficult journeys off the street.

"I hold true that the best and most effective way to address homelessness is housing. Not handcuffs. Not locking people up," Brooks said. "We need to address this crisis head-on."