Tom Wolf in The Voice of San Francisco: SCOTUS must overturn Johnson v. Grants Pass

Read the full article here.

On April 22, the Supreme Court heard arguments for and against the Johnson v. Grants Pass case, and they will decide sometime this summer whether it’s cruel and unusual punishment to remove the homeless from public spaces. Proponents argue that removing a homeless encampment from a public space violates eighth amendment rights, which the eighth amendment forbids the use of excessive bails or fines in criminal trials, and punishments considered to be “cruel and unusual.” 

I’m no legal scholar or lawyer, I’m just a guy who experienced homelessness for six months in 2018 on the streets of San Francisco, but if I understand this correctly, when the eighth amendment was created, it was intended for people held in some type of custody not to be subjected to additional harms beyond detention. Can this apply to the homeless camping in public spaces? I don’t think so. And here’s why. Public spaces are for all of us. The homeless included. But that means we all deserve equal access to those spaces. Imagine if you have kids and you take them to their little league game at the local baseball diamond at a park. When you get there, there’s several people with tents set up in the middle of the diamond. If Johnson v. Grants Pass is upheld, you can’t make them move, even if a shelter bed is available. You’re granting unfair and unlimited access of public spaces to those individuals, irrespective of their living situation. In a nutshell, they would have more rights to be there than you and your kids do.

When I was homeless, I used to sleep on Golden Gate Avenue between Hyde and Larkin Streets in San Francisco. Every morning at 5:30 a.m., the University of California campus police would come through, wake us up and make us move across the street. Why? Because the businesses we were sleeping in front of on a public sidewalk needed to open. What did we do? We got up and moved across the street. It wasn’t cruel, it wasn’t unusual. I was homeless, but I wasn’t dumb. I knew those businesses had to open, and I also knew that nobody would go to that business if 10 people were sleeping in front of it. Everyone knows this except for the homeless activists who put Johnson up to putting his name on a lawsuit. 

That said, do cities need to do more to invest in shelters and housing? Absolutely they do. San Francisco has between 8,000 and 20,000 people experiencing homelessness and about 3,000 beds total among shelters, drug treatment, and other places. San Francisco also already houses about 16,000 formerly homeless people in subsidized housing — the highest rate per capita in the United States. But you must understand something. Since 2016 when policies around supportive housing changed and California went all in on “Housing First,” funding for shelters dried up. Funding for faith-based and drug-free shelter programs also dried up. The result was a net loss of beds while we “scaled up” housing, which isn’t quite working out as planned in San Francisco or California. So the problem created by changes to California homeless policy actually led to this moment of the Supreme Court deciding the fate of whether cities have the right to manage their public spaces.

If SCOTUS upholds Johnson v. Grants Pass, not only will large cities be impacted, but smaller towns with little or no resources will be forced to surrender their parks, beaches, and baseball diamonds to tents, RVs, drugs and all of the behaviors that come with it. If you look beyond San Francisco to cities like Venice where entire stretches of their beach at one point were occupied by the homeless, you’d understand. It got so bad in Venice, that at one point, one stretch of beach was renamed “Methlehem” by the homeless living there. Why? Because drug use (especially Meth use) was rampant. 

If this decision teaches us anything, it’s that homelessness and drug addiction are the new crises of our generation. This SCOTUS decision will decide the fate of whether you can take your kid to the park for baseball, or not. It’s unbelievable that we’ve somehow managed to get ourselves here. But here we are.