The issue is key in a Sundown Town, where Blacks couldn’t live

The U.S. Supreme Court is taking on the issue of homelessness, which affects large numbers of Black people nationwide because, as a group, we comprise the nation’s largest homeless population. 

On Monday, the court argued whether local officials could ban homeless men and women from sleeping in the city’s public parks by charging them a fee. The city of Grants Pass, Oregon, charges its homeless residents $295 per night for sleeping outside.

But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is based in San Francisco, enjoined Grants Pass from barring the town’s officials from charging men and women who sleep in the parks. 

A brief, filed on April 3, argues that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment does not allow cities to issue fines or to arrest people for sleeping outside in public when they lack adequate shelter and the means to obtain it. 

The center of the storm is Grants Pass, Oregon, a town of nearly 40,000 with an estimated homeless population of almost 600. A footnote is that Grants Pass is or was a sundown town where Blacks were prohibited from living like most Oregon cities in the past.

Today, Grants Pass is 0.8% African American, which is 0.3% of Oregon’s Black population, according to the Oregon Remembrance Project.

Hundreds of people were outside the Supreme Court Building holding signs that said, “Homelessness is Not a Crime.â€

The case is titled “Grants Pass v. Johnson.†  If the Supreme Court reverses the lower court’s decision, it is expected to have far-reaching consequences for the United States’ homelessness policy.

Homelessness is a growing problem, especially among Black men who have been largely excluded from any economic recovery.

More than 650,000 Americans were homeless during the 2023 Point-in-Time count, which counts the number of homeless people in the U.S. 

The Point-in-Time (PIT) count is an annual assessment of sheltered and unsheltered people experiencing homelessness at a given moment. Each year, data compiled during the PIT count are analyzed to help inform areas of need and allocate resources for housing and services.

Among Black men and women, it’s hard to turn your back on the homeless. You see them everywhere. My wife keeps money in her pocket to give to the homeless on a daily basis.

Nearly 4 in 10 people experiencing homelessness identified as Black, African American, or African, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development recently Point-Time-Count.

People who identify as Black make up just 13 percent of the total U.S. population but comprise 37 percent of all people experiencing homelessness. 

In Chicago, where I live, unemployed Black men are sleeping in Chicago Transit Authority railcars because they have nowhere to live. Unhoused men also sleep under viaducts. 

I live across from a Whole Foods store. A man younger than me asked if I would buy him a meal. I did, but it was a point of pride for him to claim he wasn’t homeless. The cashier, familiar with the man, thanked me for buying him food.

In Los Angeles, Mayor Karen Bass is dedicated to reducing homelessness. 

Bass, when she was campaigning for mayor, said that more than 40,000 Los Angeles residents go to sleep every night without a roof over their heads, and nearly four unhoused Angelenos die every day. Mayor Bass recently declared a state of emergency over the homeless crisis.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked what would happen if Grants Pass’s ban were allowed to stand and other cities adopted similar laws.

“Where do we put them if every city, every village, every town lacks compassion and passes a law identical to this? Where are they supposed to sleep? Are they supposed to kill themselves, not sleep?†Sotomayor asked.