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Faith Leaders: The Solution to Homelessness is Not Criminalization; It’s Housing

For Immediate Release


NEW YORK – Being homeless in America is incredibly hard, and last week the Supreme Court made it harder still. In a 6-3 decision in City of Grants Pass v. Johnson, the majority ruled that it was permissible to ticket and jail people for sleeping outside or in their cars, even with just a blanket covering them, when they have no other place to go. United Women in Faith and several affiliated National Mission Institutions weighed in and shared thoughts on the decision, its dangers, and what needs to happen going forward:

Last week’s Supreme Court decision criminalizes people experiencing homelessness, while moving the country no closer to solving the underlying problem, as 653,104 people were homeless in America on a winter night in 2023. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, “This is the highest number of people reported as experiencing homelessness on a single night since the national reporting on the Point-in-Time Count began in 2007.”

The solution to homelessness is not criminalization; it’s housing. But all across the country, our communities face a dire shortage of affordable housing.

“Columbus, GA, is short about 14,000 units of affordable housing,” said Kim Jenkins, executive director of Open Door Community House.

“Nashville’s housing situation is very troublesome,” said Steve Fleming, executive director of the Bethlehem Centers of Nashville. “It’s a very fast-growing city. There’s been an influx of people from other parts of the country – California, New York – and it’s a steal for them. But it’s really stressing some local families to the max. Those typical, low-income families we serve every day, who are just trying to keep up with everyday living, are having to leave, or falling into homelessness because they can’t keep up with rent. We found out that there were some families that were living in cars, or living down by different properties downtown by the river. I had a situation where one family was sleeping under a bridge.”

The housing crisis is not limited to a single city, state, or region. It is engulfing the whole country.

“The cost of the average apartment went up 21 percent in 2021,” said Bill Tibbitts of the Crossroads Urban Center in Salt Lake County. “At a recent Crossroads BBQ, a man served by our ministry pointed to a nearby building and said he used to live in a two-bedroom there. He had been paying $950/month. The rent was up to $2,100/month last he’d heard and the man, himself, was currently homeless.”

“The bigger situation is that, country-wide, we don’t have anything close to the affordable housing we need, especially for those earning less than 30 percent of Area Median Income,” Tim Shanahan, executive director of Families Forward in Des Moines, Iowa, remarked. “That impacts not just homeless people, but other low-income people as well. There’s not enough shelter space, rent assistance, rapid rehousing supports, or utility assistance. As long as we don’t have enough affordable housing, and don’t have enough programs for people who need short-term help, we’re going to be in that situation where people have nowhere else to go.”

Another commonality across the nation is a lack of adequate safe and accessible short-term and transitional housing options.

“We have 61 [shelter] beds in Mobile and 35 beds in Baldwin County, and we have a waiting list of nearly 200 individuals. Last year, our local homeless coalition reported 2,830 individuals were in a housing crisis,” said Kate Carver, executive director of Dumas Wesley Community Center in Mobile, AL.

“I get calls all the time, people showing up at 5 p.m. on a Friday saying they need somewhere to go,” Jenkins said. “But even rapid rehousing is not that rapid — it’s not same-night. We have people who pop in the door all the time who say ‘I literally have nowhere else to go.’ Those people are, for a while, literally on the streets, sleeping on a park bench for a short time, because they have nowhere else to go. If those people are now going to be taken to jail, then I think we have a real problem. If we criminalize people just because they’re on a park bench sleeping because they have nowhere else to go, then I don’t know where that leaves us as a society.”

The consequences of Grants Pass v. Johnson may well be lethal, if it means that people without shelter are unable to protect themselves from the elements for fear of criminal punishment.

“We cannot really calculate how many more people will die, will have frostbite that causes them to lose digits or limbs, because we’ve never had this many people being exposed to the elements before,” said Bill Tibbitts, of Crossroads Urban Center in Salt Lake City, UT. “If we’re going to say that you can’t use a tent anymore, when there are 1,000 people outside in the snow, that’s alarming. Criminalization has been a kneejerk reaction, the default for politicians from both parties. But we know that it doesn’t work.”

Criminalization is a step in the wrong direction.

“You have one event – major medical bill or some other situation — almost anybody can find themselves homeless, and find themselves having to sleep outside, or sleep in a car, in a way that would be punishable,” Shawna Nelsen-Wills, of Emma Norton, reflected. “When you talk about jailing people or giving them fines for sleeping outside, then that just pushes them back further from their goal of finding safe, affordable housing, or a job, or whatever they’re trying to achieve. It just makes it that much more difficult. We, as a society, should be helping them find what they need to succeed and take those next steps, not punishing them for sleeping outside.”

“The City of Grants Pass v. Johnson decision will exacerbate existing inequalities and further criminalize poor people, especially poor people of color,”said Emily Jones, executive for racial justice at United Women in Faith. “We know that nationally, 37 percent of people experiencing homelessness are Black and nearly a third are Latina/o/x. Homelessness is already a racial justice issue. We also know that people of color are targeted by policing and arrested more frequently than white people who engage in the same behavior. So, there is a double-disproportionality at play here. People of color are more likely to experience homelessness and, once homeless, people of color are more likely to be criminalized for their homelessness.”

Criminalizing homelessness sets people up both for short-term traumatic experiences and erects further barriers to accessing stable housing in the future.

“Criminal punishment serves no purpose,” said Kate Carver, executive director at Dumas Wesley Community Center in Mobile, AL. “Research shows that providing affordable housing is cheaper than repeatedly jailing someone. Criminalizing homelessness violates constitutional and civil rights, and it’s also traumatizing. It is already traumatizing to be sleeping in your car, and then it becomes a criminal act, and that has a multiplier effect. When you play this tape to the end, what happens? The unaffordable ticket. The arrest. The collateral consequences of that arrest. Hundreds or thousands of dollars in court fines. Taken to jail and there for weeks. Maybe losing custody of kids or losing your employment while you’re in jail. And then when you do come out, it’s harder to get a job, housing, or other public benefits because you have a record.”

“The SCOTUS decision on homelessness is really scary and troubling because I’m just one of millions of people that have experienced homelessness and having to figure out where we’re going to go, where we’re going to live, and how we’re going to survive, without somebody knocking on your car door saying you can’t park here, with the fear of your children maybe being taken away,” said Joni Hendee, director of marketing and public relations at Dumas Wesley Community Center in Mobile, AL. “Nobody chooses to become homeless. It’s an experience that one goes through.”

Serving people who are experiencing homelessness is a vital expression of faith and decency.

“We run a food distribution program, among other services,” said Renyatta Banks, executive director at Wesley Community Center in Portsmouth, VA. “When I started as executive director six years ago, a man with diabetes was living in our building. I still sometimes find people sleeping outside our building and know that some food program participants are living in their cars. These are maybe your Vietnam vets who came home to nothing. Maybe people who lost their home in the mortgage crisis. There are so many different situations. It’s an honor, to me, that they’re here. They look at it as a safe haven.”

“God wants us to help each other,” Steve Fleming added. “I wish we had a heart of compassion for everyone, regardless of their situation, because everyone needs a little love to grow and prosper.”

“People of faith, likewise, are called to advocacy,” Jones added. “We must be vocal and active all around the country, pushing back on the criminalization of homelessness. Above all, we must continue to uphold the inherent dignity of all people.”


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