How a Supreme Court ruling empowers Pa. towns — and threatens unhoused people

"It's setting a lot of dangerous precedents," said Chris Brickhouse of Better Days Ahead, "with more people entering poverty and being on the edge of poverty."

Cleaning up the homeless encampment

Volunteers helping the municipal workers with the Borough of Pottstown removing personal items left behind from this vacant encampment. (Marcus Biddle/WHYY)

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Homelessness advocates fear a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling could empower municipalities in the greater Philadelphia region to harshen policies against unhoused people.

The nation’s highest court on Friday affirmed Grants Pass, Oregon’s ability to punish citizens for sleeping in public, despite the absence of shelters.

The conservative majority of the court argued laws criminalizing people for sleeping in public places does not constitute a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

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“We’re really concerned that we’re going to see an increase in this criminalizing approach to homelessness given the court’s ruling,” said Eric Tars, senior policy director of the National Homelessness Law Center.

The law center coordinated the more than 40 amicus briefs signed by more than 1,100 organizations and individuals in support of the plaintiffs and provided consultation to attorneys on the case. Tars, a Philadelphia resident, said homelessness was never going to be solved in the legal system.

He said Johnson v. Grants Pass was supposed to be about “harm reduction.” But now, Tars said the court has weaponized law enforcement on one of the country’s most vulnerable populations.

“It’s like a quick and easy way to make the problem appear to go away, but actually it’s just making it worse,” Tars said.

Some cities are applauding the decision.

There are numerous homeless encampments sprinkled throughout the Delaware Valley in places like Norristown, Pottstown and Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood.

Tars hopes Philadelphia continues its “overall constructive approach” to developing affordable housing, shelter space and drug treatment beds. However, he said he’s concerned about the new administration’s “more heavy-handed and enforcement approach.”

“While there weren’t any arrests at the last sweep, we know that the mayor made this commitment to sweep the entire block there in Kensington Avenue, but has not yet opened up any new treatment beds or other alternative shelters where people could actually go,” Tars said.

In response to the ruling, Philadelphia’s Office of Homeless Services issued a statement Monday condemning the decision.

“We firmly believe that a person who is experiencing homelessness and does not have any place but outdoors to sleep should not be classified as a criminal,” the statement read. “They are human beings who do not deserve to be criminally punished with fines simply for existing.”

Supreme Court decision puts Pottstown encampment in ‘jeopardy’

It’s unclear what impact the Supreme Court decision will have on Pottstown’s unhoused population along the Schuylkill River Trail.

Encampments such as the one along College Drive near the Pottstown campus of Montgomery County Community College have drawn the ire of borough officials.

Pottstown officials previously sought to sweep the area under the threat of criminal sanctions.

In November 2023, the non-profit organization Better Days Ahead Outreach, with the help of legal organizations, sued the borough in federal court, arguing the borough violated the Eighth Amendment.

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Ultimately, the court ruled the borough could move forward with plans to clear the encampment — but not “through the imposition of criminal penalties.”

The partial win for encampment residents appears to be short lived. Chris Brickhouse, executive director for Better Days Ahead, said it could be in “jeopardy.”

“It’s setting a lot of dangerous precedents here and with more people entering poverty and being on the edge of poverty, criminalizing homelessness is probably the worst thing we can do as a country right now,” Brickhouse said.

Pottstown officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

There are no more year-round, 24/7 adult shelters operating in Montgomery County. Meanwhile, the county is staring down the barrel of an affordable housing crisis.

The non-profit distributes clothing, food and survival gear to unhoused people throughout southeastern Pennsylvania to ease the problem.

Under the perfect scenario, Brickhouse said boroughs and townships would establish more shelters, transitional housing and affordable, long-term housing immediately.

But the political will in Philadelphia’s collar counties is hard to come by, he added.

“Our society has legislated itself into fascism,” Brickhouse said. “Society doesn’t care what happens to that person because they view their problems as their own instead of failures of the society itself and of the systemic structures that have put the person in that situation.”

Norristown homelessness advocate: Volume of the problem is ‘so huge’

In Norristown, officials have sought similar measures to clear encampments. In the past, some municipal officials have expressed a desire to bus unhoused people onto the Villanova University campus.

Sunanda Charles, executive director of the Norristown Hospitality Center, said her “heart sank” when she heard the Supreme Court ruling.

“The volume of the problem that we see every day, it’s so huge and now to add to that another complication, another barrier for people to get housed,” Charles said.

A spokesperson for Norristown declined to comment.

In addition to the threat of criminalization, some advocates and legal experts believe the decision could lead to more legal claims over other protections such as the potential disposal of private property during encampment sweeps.

Tasked with running the show at Norristown’s day shelter, she said it’s going to be an uphill battle addressing homelessness.

“Places like ours are able to put a Band-Aid on the top problem and we are able to

support them providing just a range of supportive services — but not the housing piece,” Charles said.

Criminalizing homelessness can also compound the difficulty in obtaining housing. Charles said too often people lose out on housing opportunities because of fines they couldn’t pay — which end up turning into arrest warrants.

Ultimately, these decisions to punish homelessness creates a negative feedback loop. She described it as a housing insecurity-to-prison pipeline.

“Remember, we built the I-95 backup in 12 days. So if we can do that, surely with an issue like this, we can all come together and find solutions,” Charles said.

She said there must be a collective will to address the issue.

Montgomery County’s most recent Point-In-Time count showed an increase in people experiencing homelessness.

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