To the editor:

The Supreme Court on Friday sided with a small Oregon town that imposes civil punishments on homeless people for sleeping in public spaces. The 6-3 decision in the case known as City of Grants Pass v. Johnson is the court’s most significant decision regarding homelessness in decades. It is likely to reverberate far beyond the West Coast as cities across the country grapple with a growing homelessness crisis and a lack of affordable housing.

Violators face fines starting at $295 and repeat offenders may be banned from a city park for 30 days. If a person violates that order by camping in a park, they are subject to criminal trespass charges, punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $1,250 fine. According to the city, more than 500 citations were issued from 2013 to 2018 for violations of the anti-camping ordinances.

In his opinion for the decision, Justice Neil Gorsuch found that the ordinances did not violate the Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Those ordinances, Justice Gorsuch wrote, did not criminalize the homeless but rather the act of camping outdoors.

“Sleep is a biological necessity, not a crime; for some people, sleeping outside is their only option,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor stated in her dissent, which she read from the bench, a rare occurrence signaling extreme disagreement. “The only question here is whether the Constitution permits criminalizing sleeping outside when there is nowhere else to go,” Justice Sotomayor wrote, adding that the issue had become increasingly relevant because many local governments have made criminalization a frontline response to homelessness.

The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) reports that on a single night in 2023. roughly 653,100 people in the U.S. experienced homelessness, up about 12 percent from 2022. Homelessness among youth and young adults is increasing at an even faster rate — up 15 percent from 2022 numbers.

Criminalizing people in need of housing does not solve homelessness and only penalizes our citizens most in need. The solution is to create more affordable housing and the systems that support it.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Connecticut is $1,796. To afford this and not exceed the recommended 30 percent of household income on housing, a household must earn $5,986 monthly, or $34.54 per hour in a 40-hour work week, assuming 52 weeks per year. In reality, the minimum wage in Connecticut is $15.69, and the average renter’s wage is $22.30. Far lower than the fair market rent.

Opening Doors Fairfield County’s (ODFC) homeless response system service providers and partners are at the forefront of providing deeply affordable housing and wrap-around services for residents facing homelessness and housing insecurity. With programs such as Street Outreach, Diversion, Rapid Rehousing, Case Management, Employment, Education and Financial Empowerment, as well as Children’s, Veteran, and Senior services, the goal of ODFC and its partners is to end and prevent homelessness and its underlying causes.

In conclusion, the disappointing Supreme Court decision highlights the need for a fundamental shift in our approach to homelessness. Realizing that housing is a fundamental human right. The solution lies in creating more affordable housing options and support systems, not in criminalizing those in need.

In Solidarity,

Opening Doors Fairfield County homeless response system providers and partners

Bridgeport