Handcuffing the Homeless

Wednesday, June 19, 2024 at 7:25pm UTC

New York, New York, June 19, 2024 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- Co-authored by: Bill Bedrossian, President + CEO, Covenant House International and Dan Freed, Co-founder + CEO, Former resident of Covenant House New York 

For a former homeless youth, it seems barely conceivable.

This week, the Johnson v. Grants Pass case will address a critical issue: whether laws that punish homeless individuals for sleeping outdoors with basic protections such as a pillow or blanket—when no safe and accessible shelter options are available—violate the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects against excessive bail, fines, and cruel and unusual punishment. 

My co-author, Dan Freed, understands how a law like this could hinder a person’s ability to achieve a life of stability and self-reliance. “As someone who was homeless as a teenager, I can say first-hand how difficult it is to get back on your feet. Creating criminal penalties to address homelessness will only worsen the issue and prevent the opportunity for those to get ahead. Instead of eliminating homelessness, these penalties exacerbate the struggles homeless populations face, making it harder for them to overcome their circumstances.”

What’s more, these measures disproportionately affect young people, who are already at higher risk due to factors like family issues, abuse, aging out of foster care, and economic hardship. Criminalizing homelessness disrupts young people's stability continuing into adulthood, increasing their vulnerability to mental health issues, and creating barriers to education, employment, and housing—all of which make finding a path out of homelessness even more difficult. Homeless youth don’t need more hurdles or a criminal record to marginalize them further. Instead, society, including local governments, needs to create supportive resources, effective outreach programs, and legitimate safety nets.

“It is very clear that Johnson v. Grants Pass is, in fact, a penalty for homelessness itself,” says Dan. “It’s a tax on homeless people that there is no conceivable way they could pay. As a volunteer for Covenant House, I’ve met countless teens who become homeless due to circumstances outside of their control, like after the death of a parent. I’ve met young women who have no choice but to face the uncertainties of the street to escape domestic violence. I’ve met people whose parents were struggling with addiction who sleep outside because it feels safer than their own home. These people––human beings––have no choice but to expose themselves to the elements and the risks of the street. Should these young people also have to fear waking up to police handcuffing and arresting them?”  

Welcome to the unjust world proposed by Johnson v. Grants Pass.

Currently, more than 600,000 people in America experience homelessness on any given night, with nearly half––250,000––sleeping outside. And every year, 4.2 million young people experience a form of homelessness in this country. At Covenant House, 'The Journey Home' initiative is our roadmap for addressing this issue. Our job, and indeed society’s job, should be to redirect these young people away from a life of homelessness. This new law does the opposite––it forces them down a dead-end street and further increases the burden they already struggle to bear.

I can shout this from the rooftop, but it will never have the same impact as hearing from someone like my co-author Dan and other individuals who have experienced homelessness and are on their own journey to wholeness and independence. “Nonprofit organizations like Covenant House play a crucial role in helping youth overcome homelessness by providing essential services and support. I know because I’m a former Covenant House resident. I would not be in the position I’m in today if it wasn’t for the kindness and generosity of the Covenant House, its volunteers, and their community, who provided me with the opportunity to have reliable housing so I could forge a new path for myself. Thanks to their programs like emergency intervention and a transitional housing program, I was able to find stability, a safe place to rest and physically recover from living on the street, and a comprehensive support system to take small, manageable steps toward self-sufficiency. Today, I’m the founder of a growing company that employs 40+ people. And I devote my time and resources to giving back to Covenant House and to my community so that I can empower others just as I was.”

This is what we need—real, solid, reliable services—not simply a law penalizing people for a lack of support from institutions. We must rally as a caring and compassionate community to support others, especially our homeless youth, to achieve their potential. Instead of providing adequate services to begin solving the situation, the objective appears to be to further reduce the status and situation of the poorest people in this country at the most difficult time of their lives by penalizing them for having nowhere to live. Punching them down when we should be building them up. 

Adds Dan: “It’s exceedingly difficult for advocates of young homeless people and the organizations that serve them to see who exactly would benefit from this law. I support Covenant House’s stance of people experiencing homelessness to be treated with dignity rather than being criminalized.”

Together, with the Covenant House community, we believe that, as a society, we are better than this.

And we believe that all unhoused people living in our communities deserve far better than this punitive action that will set a worrisome precedent for how homeless people are treated individually and the setbacks they’ll face as a result.

We can’t allow Johnson v. Grants Pass to serve as a new standard for how policy is set. A ruling that makes it easier to ticket or arrest homeless people for sleeping outside will make homelessness worse, not to mention how it will negatively impact their inclusion socially and culturally in their own cities and towns. 

Join us in standing against this cruel and unusual punishment and urge an end to the criminalization of homelessness.

-Bill Bedrossian & Dan Freed 

Covenant House is the largest, primarily privately funded charity in North and Central America providing immediate and long-term support for young people facing homelessness and survivors of trafficking through unconditional love, absolute respect, and relentless support. Covenant House doors are open 24/7 in 34 cities across the United States, Canada, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico to all young people who need housing and help, regardless of their race, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression, and all services and programs are available at no cost. Our North Star is ending youth homelessness.  covenanthouse.org  

Pam Sandonato
Covenant House