Homelessness should not be a crime

By Arlene Violet, Esq.
Posted 4/30/24

Let me get my bias out of the way when I talk about homelessness. More than 45 years ago, I was privileged to be the executive director of McAuley House, the first soup kitchen in Providence, founded …

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Homelessness should not be a crime


Let me get my bias out of the way when I talk about homelessness. More than 45 years ago, I was privileged to be the executive director of McAuley House, the first soup kitchen in Providence, founded the year before by Sister Eileen Murphy. It was an eye-opener.

I remember the ex-vice-president of a major supermarket chain whose alcoholism resulted in the loss of his high-paying job, his wife and family, as he then slept on the streets. “Ray” was a Vietnam veteran and couldn’t dine outside during the summer since any plane’s engine overhead sent him into a deep slide under the table, where he hid from the “bombing.” Mary sat with all her possessions in her lap, so scared was she that somebody would take her meager belongings.

I came to love and respect all my sister and brother human beings there. So, needless to say, I am appalled at the cavalier dismissal of the humanity of our brethren in all these discussions of homelessness.

Yes, I see the problems caused by encampments and all the health concerns, littered needles, etc. But, for such a so-called advanced society, the United States should have its act together and provide shelter and attendant support systems to curb the curse of homelessness.

Our half-hearted efforts to stem homelessness have finally reached the United States Supreme Court. On April 22, the Court heard arguments in City of Grants Pass, Oregon v. Johnson, a case that challenges a municipality’s ability to ban people from sleeping or camping out in public areas like a sidewalk or park.  Grants Pass has no public shelters for homeless folk, but it does have an ordinance that made sleeping in public places punishable by civil citation (which is a court hearing and a fine if found “guilty” for having to sleep as a physical need).

The courts below struck down the ordinance, finding that it punished the homeless for their status, i.e.being without a home, versus a behavior.

We all need to pause and reflect on whether we really, under standards of decency, want to criminalize the status of being homeless.

Many of the nine justices seemed flummoxed by the arguments. With the city attorney arguing that it was a punishment for “behavior,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted that only people who were homeless were arrested, whereas stargazers or babies who have blankets over them aren’t arrested.

Another justice noted that even in places where there is a shelter, local rules preclude admission to a bed if one is addicted to drugs and alcohol. Another justice, probably the ultimate winning argument if the court rules that the case isn’t moot (the state passed a ban which ultimately nullified the local ordinance), is that law enforcement will have to make a case by case decision. He queried whether a town can criminalize urination or defecation in public for somebody who doesn’t have a toilet.

Putting aside the legal niceties of this case and the potential punt of this case by the Supreme Court, do we Americans want to be a country where we cannot offer shelter to another human being? I should hope that our sense of decency puts us on the record of providing cover and not cover-up our inhumanity to others.

Arlene Violet is an attorney and former Rhode Island Attorney General.

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