Supreme Court case could impact the unhoused in Rochester

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Angela Meins is an unhoused Rochester resident who is part-Indigenous, disabled, and transgender. She refuses to stay in homeless shelters because she has been threatened with bodily harm and even death. So, she sleeps in a tent outdoors.

Amy D’Amico

Meins reported her experiences to the Center for Constitutional Rights, which filed an amicus brief on behalf of Angela and other LGBTQI+ homeless individuals in a key case before the U.S. Supreme Court, City of Grants Pass, Oregon v. Gloria Johnson et al

This case could change the way homelessness is treated by cities, towns, and police departments across the country—for the worse. The case poses the question, whether people experiencing involuntary homelessness in a city with no safe, available shelter beds can be punished with fines, fees, and criminal penalties if they sleep in public areas with rudimentary protection from the elements such as pillows and blankets—the unavoidable consequence of being without a home?

The case would allow municipal leaders to criminalize poverty. 

According to estimates by Person Centered Housing Options, which does street outreach for unhoused individuals and families in Rochester, there were 349 households referred to outreach in 2023. Seventy-two of the households being referred were individuals in their cars, a 53 percent increase from 2022, and many of which included children. Street homelessness represents 67 percent of PCHO referrals. (More data is available here.)  

In Grants Pass, Ore., there is one homeless shelter in the city that holds 138 people. More than 1,000 people are homeless in Grants Pass and some have no choice but to sleep outdoors. There is simply no room at the inn. Others choose to sleep in encampments because the faith-based shelter requires attendance at religious meetings twice a day for residents whether they are Christian or not. Others in the record reported sleeping outside because they had a dog.

Oral arguments were heard on April 22. I read some of the transcript of Grants Pass to Angela Meins.

I asked her about Gospel Rescue Mission shelter in Grants Pass and whether homeless people should be forced to go there or face civil or criminal penalties if they didn’t. Angela said, “So you want to push religion on people. That goes against freedom of religion. And there’s a separation of church and state. They are violating their own law—the Constitution.”

What about sleeping? Should it be criminalized? Angela responded, “Not everyone is on drugs who is homeless, or doing something criminal. You have the right to sleep in a tent or outside.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayer stated in oral arguments that according to the record of police testimony, the law would only be applied to people who are homeless.

Angela, hearing this, said, “If a person who is not homeless, it’s not applied to them, only people who don’t want to be treated like kids in shelters, it’s only applied to them? Doesn’t the Constitution protect our freedom? The yelling and noise endanger me. My PTSD—I get disoriented; they try to assault me for using the female bathroom—the shelters failed me because of my PTSD and transgender, attacking me and everything else.”

She continued, “At homeless shelters, a lot of (the staff) have no idea, they’ve never experienced losing everything, again and again; and unlawful sweeps that exist—we are supposed to live free. We aren’t hurting anyone, and the common area is not being used. They should give people houses that are being torn down instead.”

I asked Angela (as the justices had asked), “Could you criminalize homelessness?”

Her retort: “Could you criminalize the landlords, who charge ridiculous prices for an apartment, when ‘affordable’ isn’t reasonable, accurate, affordable; when people on my income can’t afford it? It’s an unfair amount for housing.”

If the court sides with the city of Grants Pass, anti-poverty laws will likely sweep across the U.S., including in Rochester. New local laws could fine and criminalize sleeping outdoors on city property—rather than adding laws or funding to increase the number and types of shelter beds, funding permanent supportive housing and providing sanctioned, supported parking lots where those in cars may safely rest. It won’t matter that housing and services are more effective at limiting unsafe encampments. Supporters of “handcuffs not housing” will simply pass it off as the Supreme Court’s guidance to make it a crime for the uncontrollable aspects of involuntary homelessness—specifically, for sleeping outdoors with minimal protection to survive the cold.

“Is this a police government and no right to live free and be happy and build a life back together to better yourself?” Angela asked.

Good question.

The Supreme Court is expected to render a decision this June. 

Amy D’Amico is an attorney, street outreach volunteer, and a member of the Rochester Alliance for Housing Accountability in Rochester. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

One thought on “Supreme Court case could impact the unhoused in Rochester

  1. It be just like they let the of human service take our grandchildren from us there no better the any of the rest of these court or judges in this place call United States .

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