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With court ruling looming, homeless people need assistance, not arrest

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With court ruling looming, homeless people need assistance, not arrest

May 28, 2024 | 6:51 pm ET
By Tom Ferraro
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With court ruling looming, homeless people need assistance, not arrest
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Tents under Interstate 83 in downtown Baltimore in 2020, part of a homeless encampment. Photo by Elizabeth Shwe.

“Have you ever been homeless?” asked a woman standing outside a coffee shop with nowhere to go. She said she had lived on the streets of Annapolis for weeks, ever since being evicted from her apartment after losing her job.

Without a permanent residence, she said that she sleeps and hangs out wherever she can – on park benches, at a shelter, under an overpass, and, on weekends, in the lobby of an apartment building. “I just have to be out by Monday morning,” she said.

The life of this woman – and those of others in homelessness – are filled with challenges, and the U.S. Supreme Court may soon make them even more challenging. Within the next month, it’s expected to rule whether states and localities may prohibit the unhoused from sleeping in public spaces.

The case stems from the city of Grants Pass, Oregon, which enacted local ordinances that ban the homeless from sleeping outdoors within its city limits. The anti-camping laws carry fines for using blankets, pillows or anything else for protection from the elements.

In 2022, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco barred enforcement of the ordinances, ruling they violated the Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The city appealed, and the Supreme Court agreed to consider it.

On April 22, a seemingly divided Supreme Court heard oral arguments. As The Washington Post reported the next day:  The “justices expressed concern about punishing homeless people for sleeping outside … while also struggling with how to ensure local and state leaders have flexibility to deal with the growing number of unhoused individuals nationwide.”

Advocates for the homeless, including Mario Berninzoni, executive director of the Arundel House of Hope, a shelter in Glen Burnie, anxiously await the court’s decision. The ruling could have implications nationwide, including in the more than 150 incorporated cities and towns across Maryland.

“It could be a challenge for us, a challenge for our clients” who are homeless, said Berninzoni, who also chairs the Anne Arundel and Annapolis Coalition to End Homelessness, which consists of dozens of individuals and groups.

Berninzoni said if the court upholds the Grants Pass ordinance, a number of Maryland jurisdictions may implement such local laws. “Some of our clients could get arrested for being homeless. A lot of our folks like to sleep outside. They have a safe place and prefer it to shelters.”

“But,” Berninzoni said, “I think a lot (of Maryland jurisdictions) will decide, ‘We don’t want to get involved in this,'” and decline to adopt any such ordinance. “I think most will feel that way. Same with police officers. They don’t want to arrest the homeless.”

Berninzoni is encouraged by the actions of Maryland Attorney General Anthony Brown. In a “friend of the court” brief, Brown opposed the ordinance and backed the homeless. He took the action on behalf of himself and the attorneys general of five other states: Massachusetts, Illinois, Minnesota, New York and Vermont.

“Policies criminalizing involuntary homelessness, such as the one that the city (of Grants Pass) has adopted, could render significant portions of the country off-limits for people who are homeless,” Brown wrote. “Punishing homelessness only makes the problem worse and unnecessarily pulls people experiencing homelessness into the criminal justice system.”

On a winter night in 2023, more than 650,000 people were identified in homelessness nationwide, a 12% increase from the year before, according to annual federal counts. The jump was attributed largely to a shortage of affordable housing and the end of pandemic relief.

While most of those in homelessness are unemployed, Brown noted some have jobs but can’t afford rent. He said they include a single mom of two who sleeps in her car, the parents of four living in a tent and the security guard who works at a shelter but has no home of her own.

In Annapolis, the homeless woman outside the coffee shop said she would return to a shelter for another day visit and temporary relief, including an opportunity to shower, get a hot meal and wash her clothes.

The woman could apply to stay at the shelter for up to 90 days. But after that, unless she gets an extension – or secures and agrees to another home – she may decide to go back on the streets.

The Community Action Agency of Anne Arundel County, along with fellow members of the Coalition to End Homelessness, believes homelessness should not be punished but instead helped — like the Maryland General Assembly did this year by passing legislation to build more affordable housing and protect renters against eviction.