Our Courts Won’t Solve Homelessness

In my last column, I discussed the legal victory for the homeless in a case out of Boise, Idaho in which the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals said that cities couldn’t charge people criminally for living on the streets.

Cities within the Ninth Circuit, such as San Francisco, Portland and even Boise, have courts and municipal governments that are friendlier to people without adequate housing. Here, we tend not only to criminalize homelessness but to bulldoze unsightly encampments out of existence. City officials gamble that the few nonprofit organizations with the capability to do constitutional litigation are so overtaxed that they won’t call them on it. They’re usually right. And even if they’re wrong, even if someone here picks up the legal torch for people without housing, our federal courts were never much help to the little guy in the first place, even before they were stacked with Trump appointees who have never so much as seen a person experiencing homelessness (or the inside of a courtroom, but that’s another column). Our more conservative courts of appeals aren’t as likely to cut them a break as the Ninth Circuit.

So, how can the well-fed, well-housed and well-meaning types who read this publication make a difference? I asked four activists on both sides of the river for advice.

Catherine McGeeney, the director of communications for the Coalition for the Homeless in Louisville, explained that “the crisis of homelessness in America was created by the slashing of federal budgets for homeless services, mental health services and affordable housing.” Barbara Anderson is the executive director of Haven House, one of the only shelters in southernmost Indiana and a longtime advocate for those experiencing homelessness. She agreed that “as long as we [are trying to] address the crisis while cuts continue, it will not be better.”

In fact, all the folks I talked to agree: This is a systemic problem that requires systemic change. Individual activism isn’t likely to do much without the help of an executive or legislature of some kind. The good news is that even small municipal bodies, ones that are more easily pressured by constituents, can do a lot to provide relief. In a city such as Louisville or New Albany, appeals to city councils, mayors and other elected officials can have more impact than, say, asking a governor or a General Assembly for help. McGeeney explained: “On a city level, the Coalition has so many partners working hard to collaboratively end homelessness for as many people as we can, but we need more resources and a better framework within which to operate to get at the root causes. We need to reduce barriers to housing, which we could start doing by adopting a fair housing ordinance that’s been proposed in [Louisville] Metro Council; we need to strengthen tenants’ associations; we need to get a permanent source of funding for the local Affordable Housing Trust Fund. We have lots of new apartments being built in the city, what if, like many other cities have done across the country, we required that a certain percentage of those new units be dedicated to affordable housing?”

The nonprofit sector can, with the right kind of support, make a dent in the problem, too. Anderson said that “the common theme in all of the subpopulations is a lack of treatment centers and safe places, as well as housing with supports.” LifeDesigns and the Shalom Community Center in Bloomington, [Indiana] are tackling the problem for some chronically homeless by simply giving them the “housing with supports” that Anderson described. Rev. Forrest Gilmore, executive director of Shalom, said such “housing first” programs are “a profoundly humane and cost effective solution for chronic homelessness, which also reduces the impact on the emergency healthcare and criminal justice systems.” Gilmore’s expanding program is producing profound successes, but of course, one program isn’t enough to satisfy all the needs in Bloomington, let alone the rest of the region. Gilmore recommended a few other tactics that might not come immediately to mind when we think of combating homelessness: “Advocate for the legalization of marijuana and the decriminalization of drugs. Substance use disorder is a public health issue that we’ve turned into a crime, pushing people to the margins of our society. Fight stigma. Love people who use drugs. Push for on-demand treatment and harm reduction resources.”

All of these solutions seem so unwieldy that it can be difficult to figure out where to start. But there’s no question that progress can be made on the local level and, in some places, has already been made. Alisha Ingram, who has been elbows-deep in helping various individuals and organizations bring much-needed relief to people experiencing homelessness on both sides of the river, offered this simple, practical advice: “Bags of random toiletries often end up as just more trash because you can’t carry what you don’t need. And too many people are too hardheaded to understand that. So they drop all this shit off at camps or underpasses & then when it gets left there, the homeless get further stigmatized because of all the garbage.” But Ingram’s central piece of advice is even simpler and it’s something anyone reading this could do right now: “Honestly, one of the most important things a person can do for someone who is experiencing homelessness is look them in the eye, without judgment and treat them with the same respect & dignity you expect to be treated with.”

Dan Canon is a civil rights lawyer and law professor. “Midwesticism”is his short-documentary series about Midwesterners making the world better. Watch it at: patreon.com/dancanon.