Brief in Grants Pass Case Charges California Politicians Have Stoked Misinformation Rather Than Addressed Affordable Housing Needs

Zal Shroff – Acting Legal Director, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

San Francisco, CA – The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area announced at a press conference Tuesday that they had submitted an amici curiae brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in the Grants Pass case—a case “that will determine whether falling asleep while homeless can be considered a crime in the United States.”

Zal K. Shroff, Acting Legal Director, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area explained, “The city of Grants Pass in Oregon has made it a criminal offense to sleep outside with so much as a blanket anywhere within the city limits. Now that effectively means that dozens of unhoused residents who fell on hard times were being jailed just for being poor.”

He said, “This form of status based punishment for circumstances beyond one’s control was declared a cruel and unusual punishment by the Supreme Court. Decades ago in the 1960s.”

He continued, saying “the United States government, the state of California, the city of San Francisco, the city of Los Angeles, Governor Newsom and Mayor London Breed have all submitted briefs in this case that say that what Grants Pass has done, which is to criminalize homelessness, is a clear violation of the US Constitution. And not only that, but it’s illogical. Jailing someone for being poor does not magically mean that they can afford to pay rent.”

The committee points out, “There is no disagreement on this narrow question of law.”

Nevertheless, California politicians pressed for the Supreme Court to take up this case.

The amici brief “calls attention to the profound disinformation that San Francisco politicians and California leaders have spread to avoid accountability for failing to deliver on their own data-driven policies to address homelessness—while brutally citing and arresting people just for being too poor to afford a home.”

Moreover, the brief “explains how California politicians have used the Grants Pass case to stage a political drama that blames judges for their own failure to address the homelessness crisis.”

Shroff added that “the reality is that our leaders have chosen to play politics instead of doing their jobs. They have stoked a tremendous amount of misinformation to blame federal judges for their own refusal to properly address homelessness or meet state affordable housing targets. And nowhere is that truer than in San Francisco.”

Shroff also addressed misinformation that the homeless crisis is occurring because “California cities are too liberal, that there are droves of unhoused people who come here to take advantage of lenient policies and good weather; that is false. More than 90% of unhoused people are from California with 75% living in the very same California county where they first were priced out of their homes in San Francisco.”

Angela Chan, Assistant Chief Attorney, San Francisco Public Defender’s Office noted that elected San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju and the Public Defender’s Office have signed onto this amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to “find the Grants Pass law criminalizing people for being unhoused unconstitutional.”

She explained she is part of the Confront and Advocate Team.

“What do we confront?” she asked.  “State sponsored violence and state sponsored violence is why we are gathered here today at this press conference.”

She continued, explaining, “What is it if not state sponsored violence when we respond to the most vulnerable in our communities, people who are unhoused, by arresting them when they sleep outside with so much as a blanket simply for being poor. What is it if not state-sponsored violence when police spend city resources to arrest people for simply sleeping outside because there are no shelter beds available?”

She added, “As our amicus brief so clearly explains, it is cruel and unusual to jail the unhoused and call it housing policy, it is not housing policy.”

Chan noted that in a city with so much immense wealth, the city has a grossly inadequate shelter system, one that functions thousands of beds short each day, “which forces the majority of San Francisco’s unhoused residents to sleep outside because they have no access to shelter.”

Moreover, “Criminalizing people for being poor only puts unhoused people in more bleak circumstances, taking away what little property they have to survive.”

Chan added, as the amicus brief points out, “jailing people for being unhoused does not make housing affordable to them. It makes things worse, it should be common sense, but it’s something that seems to have escaped the city and state leaders who have put in their really invalid arguments as a city and a state that prides itself on being forward-thinking, compassionate and equitable.”

The solution to homelessness, Chan argued, “doesn’t lie in punishment; incarceration will never solve the underlying issues of unaffordable housing and a severe shortage of shelter and services.”

Kaki Marshall, a formerly incarcerated youth, is the Former SF Director of Temporary Shelter.

He explained, “Having worked for the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing in San Francisco, I’ve witnessed firsthand the profound gap between the City’s stated intentions and outcomes on homelessness—with brutal results.

“Rather than delivering on proven solutions for affordable housing, the city chooses to waste taxpayer money on handcuffing people who have nowhere else to turn for shelter or housing because we still do not have any to offer. It’s high time for accountability and for the city to listen to the voices of the people demanding genuine solutions.”

Brandon Green, Director of Policy Advocacy, Western Center on Law and Poverty, noted that this is a racial justice issue, and “Black individuals are disproportionately represented amongst the unhoused population.”

He called the homelessness crisis “the results of decades-long, deliberate policy decisions steeped in anti-Blackness.”

Green explained, “Black codes, vagrancy laws, redlining, were all policy decisions that resulted in the criminalization Black Americans and the racialized wealth extraction that leaves them vulnerable to ever increasing increases in the costs of living. These racialized polices have been proven to not work in lowering or eliminating houselessness, instead they only exacerbate [the] vulnerability of those impacted.”

He added, “These policies demonize and scapegoat which increases animus and thwarts efforts to enact proven housing-first solutions.”

Former San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin also signed on to the amicus brief.

“I want to start by just emphasizing that there is a critical difference between political theory and theater and real solutions,” he said.

He explained, “We know well what works to solve problems like homelessness. There is an abundance of research documenting effective solutions and responses to get people off of the street and onto their feet. And yet what we are seeing from San Francisco’s elected officials in this moment and on this issue is fear-mongering misinformation and political theater that is holding San Francisco back from actually addressing what are very real problems impacting all of us.”

Boudin explained, “It is really shocking to me and it should be shocking to all of us that we are now in front of the Trump dominated US Supreme Court on this issue and we are there in part because California leaders who are perfectly clear on what the law is and say that they agree with it simply do not want to take accountability for their actions or be held accountable by their constituents for their intentional and systematic failure to implement policies that solve homelessness.”

Boudin added, “San Francisco stands at a critical juncture in addressing homelessness with both the resources and opportunity to expand shelters, transitional housing, and essential services. Yet, finger-pointing, indifference, and flawed practices have derailed our progress.

“San Francisco needs to follow its own policies. But that has nothing to do with the case before the Supreme Court. California’s leaders agree that what Grants Pass has done—jailing poor residents just because they cannot afford housing—is brutal, cruel and unusual.”

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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