Empower Missouri’s Statement on the SCOTUS ruling in Johnson v City of Grants Pass

Empower Missouri condemns the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) ruling in Johnson v the City of Grants Pass. The heart of the case centered on the question: “Is it considered cruel and unusual punishment to ticket, fine, or arrest people who are sleeping outdoors, even if there are no shelter options available?” In a 6-3 decision, SCOTUS ruled that criminalizing homelessness does not constitute “cruel and unusual punishment” and that people who live outdoors are not entitled to rest. It is unconscionable to believe that criminalizing people for experiencing the consequences of extreme poverty is not cruel. 

We are deeply concerned about the potential consequences of this ruling on policy making in Missouri. During the 2024 legislative session, some members of the House and Senate openly expressed their intention to overturn tenant protections and criminalize homelessnessagain. We believe that the Grants Pass ruling could embolden those legislators to reintroduce and potentially even expand the proposed scope of these harmful policies.  

Unsheltered homelessness continues to rise in Missouri, and only 21 of our 115 counties have emergency shelters, leaving many with no choice but to sleep on the streets. If criminalization of homelessness  is passed during the 2025 legislative session, it will make more people targets for tickets, fines, and jail time.  And with Black, Indigenous, and other people of color already overrepresented in the homeless community, the racism that exists in these systems will continue.  

In the city of Grants Pass, a person can be ticketed or fined if they are found sleeping on the streets or in their vehicle and using a pillow or rolled up blanket for a measure of comfort. This is another example in a growing list of laws that aim to punish the conduct of those experiencing homelessness, with 48 states having at least one law on the books that range from loitering to panhandling. Increased contact with the police does not help those experiencing homelessness, it just moves them around–from the streets, jail cells, and back to the streets. 

Despite historically low unemployment numbers, and a 4.3% increase in weekly wages, people cannot afford the rent, with the most recent reports showing a 13% rent increase in 2024. Job loss, evictions, and rising rents are pushing more people into homelessness. One financial emergency can lead to an eviction, which makes it harder to find housing, forcing people to the streets or their cars because there are no shelters or they are full. This puts them at risk of fines or arrest. 

It’s beyond time to say enough is enough and address the systemic issues on the local, state, and federal levels. 

The breakdown of social safety nets did not happen overnight but over the course of years. Despite proof of their effectiveness, federal housing programs have been underfunded for decades, making it more difficult to provide assistance to those who need it most. Currently, 3 out of 4  people who are homeless and eligible for housing assistance are unable to receive it.  In Missouri, more than 70% of renters are cost burdened, which increases the likelihood of becoming homeless. Our Housing Trust Fund has not seen an increase in the funding source since it was passed in 1994, leading to significant discrepancies between what agencies need to address homelessness and housing instability and what they are awarded.  

In her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor recognized that cities can both address homelessness and respect the dignity of people who are homeless. While six Supreme Court Justices chose to do neither, Empower Missouri knows that “stay awake or get arrested” is not the solution to the rise in homelessness, housing is.

Homelessness is a policy choice and undoing decades of harmful policy choices will take time. But there are solutions and it’s time for us to work on those together. Our Affordable Housing Coalition convenes a monthly statewide call that focuses on bringing people together to advocate for better housing policies. You can also join one of our working groups that will focus on funding, tenant protections, or housing access for formerly incarcerated people.  

For more information on homelessness, criminalization, and housing policies, check out Empower Missouri’s 3-part series:

Homelessness in Missouri: What Housing Programs are Available?

Homelessness in Missouri: An Overview of Housing First

Homelessness in Missouri: The Criminalization of Poverty and Homelessness, A Human Rights Crisis

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