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United Way of Lancaster County


Officials: Supreme Court’s ‘Grants Pass’ ruling isn’t altering county’s homelessness strategy

(Source: OUL file)

Lancaster County officials said this week that they have not considered altering local policies on homelessness in response to last week’s U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing jurisdictions to bar sleeping outdoors in public places.

Asked Tuesday by LNP reporter Tom Lisi if county government had discussed making any changes in light of the ruling, Commissioner Josh Parsons said simply: “No.” Commissioner Alice Yoder elaborated, saying the county continues to be “proactive,” working with the Lancaster County Homelessness Coalition and providers to connect homeless individuals to the services they need.

In a statement released late Wednesday, the Lancaster County Housing and Redevelopment Authorities and the office of the coalition released a statement. It did not address the Supreme Court’s decision directly, but said the organizations remain committed to their current strategy. The coalition is housed within the redevelopment authority’s Department of Human Services.

“We know, based on decades of research, the most effective way to address homelessness is by providing collaborative supportive services and ensuring access to housing,” the statement said.

“We are committed to continuing to support these programs in our community including street outreach, case management, mental and physical healthcare, basic needs programs for food and hygiene, and access to stable housing through shelters and housing programs.”

In its June 28 ruling in “Grants Pass v. Johnson,” the Supreme Court reversed previous lower court rulings that criminalizing outdoor sleeping constituted “cruel and unusual punishment” under the Eighth Amendment unless municipalities provide alternatives.

The decision was 6-3, arraying the court’s three-person liberal wing against its conservative majority.

As NPR notes, the decision only changes the law in the 9th Circuit in the U.S. West, but it is expected to set the terms of permissible policy nationwide.

Supporters of the decision say municipalities need to be able to exercise their police power to preserve order and safety. Opponents say it will allow jurisdictions to push aside homeless people by the thousands and avoid taking needed steps to expand housing availability and provide recovery services to those who need it.

At a press conference Tuesday covered by the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, state Democratic lawmakers decried the ruling.

“This is not only a fundamental injustice, it is not only completely wrong, but in study after study, the data shows that criminalizing homelessness, sweeping encampments without care or concern has the opposite effect, that it worsens the crisis that it claims to address,” said Rep. Ismail Smith-Wade-El, D-Lancaster.

Smith-Wade-El is co-sponsoring an upcoming bill that would guarantee the right to be outside in public spaces and would support low-barrier shelters in local communities.

In a statement Tuesday, Phyllis Chamberlin, executive director of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, called the Grants Pass decision “deeply upsetting.”

“The Housing Alliance will continue to advocate for the right of all Pennsylvanians, regardless of income, to have a safe, decent, affordable place to call home,” she said, and will continue to call for public affordable housing investments, eviction prevention, low-barrier emergency shelters and individualized support services.