The Supreme Court decision in Grants Pass v. Johnson effectively criminalizes homelessness. This decision is a cruel, counterproductive move that punishes people for experiencing poverty.

By allowing communities to punish people who are sleeping or camping in public spaces when they cannot provide housing or shelter options, we allow communities to segregate the “have and have nots” and only exacerbate homelessness.

When people face economic challenges–including illness, domestic violence, or job loss–they can be pulled into poverty and face eviction or homelessness. For decades, structural racism, discrimination, lack of caregiving supports, low-wages, and the year of disinvestment in affordable housing have driven up rates of homelessness. Since the 1980s, rent has continued to skyrocket, while wages have stagnated.

These increases in economic insecurity and homelessness are no accident. They have roots in racist Nixon-era strategies to keep people poor–especially people of color. These strategies eroded and diluted the strides we made to decrease poverty during the War on Poverty and civil rights movement. This was only worsened  when welfare reform was signed into law in the 1990s. Since then, our national policy decisions have focused on criminalization, instead of challenging the root causes of poverty.

Criminalizing someone who is unhoused only worsens the problem by pulling them further from permanent housing or employment. In her dissenting opinion, Justice Sotomayor cites one example of a man who experienced homelessness for decades, writing, “When an outreach worker tried to help him secure housing, the worker had difficulty finding him for his appointments because he was frequently arrested for being homeless.”

Bowing to public pressure by clearing encampments is a hollow win. Instead, policymakers should be looking at real solutions to make a dent in the problem. Emergency rental assistance, guaranteed income, eviction moratoriums, boosting affordable housing supply, paid leave, and child care are just some of these investments.

The incessant criminalization against people experiencing poverty forces people into what our faculty director, Peter Edelman calls an “unwinnable cycle.” I joined the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality to build  a movement that fights back against injustice, begin to give power back to the people, and change policies that undermine everyone’s ability to make a better life.