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The Supreme Court’s homelessness decision will decimate the faith-based nonprofit sector

The conservative majority ruled last week that cities have the right to criminalize homeless people for sleeping outside

The city of Cleveland spent Christmas Eve afternoon in 2019 trying to shut down Denison Avenue United Church of Christ because it had been operating as a homeless shelter. 

The local congregation had opened its doors as an ad hoc shelter to make up for the shortage of beds in a city where several unhoused people had frozen to death. Yet Cleveland’s city council told church officials it could no longer operate as a house of worship if it continued to house the homeless. As the sole Jewish journalist on the freelance team at Cleveland Scene, I was the only person available to tell a story so outrageously mean spirited, it seemed to have been generated by the Grinch himself.

Fast forward almost five years, and Cleveland’s cruelty has now been justified by the highest court in the country. In Grants Pass v. Johnson, the six conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court reversed an earlier Ninth Circuit ruling, and determined that it was not unconstitutional to fine people who were living unsheltered. 

The landmark case brought by an Oregon city will now go down in history as a turning point in the fight to end homelessness, and will forever represent a sharp turn from a socially conscious and outreach-oriented approach toward a highly punitive one. Crucially, however, it is faith-based nonprofits, including many Jewish schools, synagogues and social service providers, that will be most directly impacted by the Court’s ruling. 

Both the city of Cleveland and the Supreme Court’s attitudes toward homeless people violate values I hold dear as a Jewish woman, particularly the obligation of religious individuals and entities to help the most vulnerable. As a professor of public affairs and urban planning, with over five years of engagement with homeless individuals and the systems that service them, as well as someone with familial connections to individuals who have experienced chronic homelessness, I know that there is little existing evidence that cities who penalize homeless folks are uniquely better at reducing homelessness. 

As first responders to the homeless crisis, faith-based nonprofits will lose funding and public support as homelessness is increasingly considered an aberrant and intentional behavior, rather than an expression of vulnerability. And it is Jewish agencies, which often reside in a gray area between secular and faith-based organizations, as well as Jewish funders, that will face new and unique challenges to supporting those most in need in our communities.  

Across the United States, Jewish faith-based organizations have made resolving the homelessness crisis and ensuring housing stability a core aspect of their missions for decades. Indeed, in my own hometown of Dallas, Texas, Congregation Shearith Israel’s decades-old Ladder Project (which began as the Dallas Jewish Coalition for the Homeless) assists homeless individuals in securing employment, housing, and social services. 

In South Palm Beach, B’nai Torah Congregation similarly assists with housing, meals and other services through a partnership with Family Promise. In California, the Jewish Collaborative of Orange County is physically located in a local church, where it provides services and counseling for those experiencing homelessness. 

And, of course, local Jewish Family Service centers across the country regularly partner with Jewish and non-Jewish faith-based organizations to assist with housing, case management, healthcare, employment and food services for local homeless individuals.

However, in response to Grants Pass, Jewish organizations, particularly those that are faith-based in nature, will now be competing against countless organizations all fighting over significantly less funding. Further, the loss of funding will put new strains on private philanthropists, who have for the last two decades been able to engage in more targeted and thoughtful giving knowing that many basic needs services would be covered through public funding. 

As Jewish organizations are often uniquely opposed to proselytizing and instead support a non-denominational faith-based framework, their services have long been open to both Jewish and non-Jewish clients alike. Indeed, I’ve become accustomed to encouraging homeless individuals I engage with to seek out services at our local JFS agency because they will not be forced to “pray to play.” But this openness will create even more difficult choices regarding the quality and quantity of client caseloads, as funding streams dry up and the popular narrative around homelessness shifts towards a focus on criminality.

There are several reasons why faith-based organizations have been drawn to homelessness service provision for many years. Among them is the fact that individuals who experience homelessness have a tremendous number of interrelated needs, which translates into many types of non-religious care that can be provided, including food, housing, case management, healthcare and services that offer opportunities for social connection. 

Furthermore, people experiencing homelessness are often uniquely desperate for support. In such a vulnerable state, people are often more amenable to religious messaging and the stability that religious frameworks can provide. 

But, the most salient reason for the growth in faith-based homeless service provision has been a shift away from a criminal approach to homelessness toward a social service one — a trend which the Supreme Court immediately reversed in its Grants Pass ruling. 

The six conservative justices noted that it is not up to the federal courts to decide how to best respond to homelessness, and that if cities choose to do so by criminalizing these citizens, that is a valid choice. 

The Court’s decision encourages cities and states to adopt laws that further criminalize homelessness, instead of encouraging greater nonprofit engagement with homeless individuals to support them. Local police officers and parks & recreation employees will now be empowered to respond to the presence of a homeless individual by issuing a citation, or by forcibly removing the individual and relocating them to a private prison, a for-profit addiction facility or a for-profit mental healthcare facility. 

With the Grants Pass ruling now securing the criminalization option as constitutional, we will undoubtedly see funding shift away from partnerships with faith-based organizations, and towards internal law enforcement funds and contracts with prison-like institutions, because we simply cannot afford to fund both. In a dispute between conservative and liberal views of homelessness, one which views it as a deviant state to be deterred by the law, and the other a uniquely vulnerable existence that is constitutionally protected from harsh punishments, the conservatives may have won. But they have also defunded the same institutions many claim to support. 

The ruling will almost certainly result in additional alienation and encourage unhoused citizens to retreat further away from the public eye, exacerbating their existing conditions and making it more difficult for them to access the care and resources necessary. 

The Court’s decision will not stymie progressive activists, nor will it incentivize homeless individuals to voluntarily end their state of homelessness. Instead, it will only make supporting unhoused people more challenging and make homelessness an even more precarious state, while wreaking havoc on an entire landscape of organizations whose prime motivation to provide aid is their belief in human life and dignity. 

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