How SCOTUS Could Allow Cities To Criminalize Homelessness | Crooked Media
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April 21, 2024
What A Day
How SCOTUS Could Allow Cities To Criminalize Homelessness

In This Episode

  • After months of delay, House lawmakers this weekend passed a package of bills to send foreign aid to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan. Included in that package of legislation is also a bill that could end up banning TikTok. Hard-right Republicans are threatening to oust Speaker Mike Johnson over his decision to bring Ukraine aid up for a vote. At the same time, the legislation heads to the Senate for consideration later this week. The Supreme Court hears a case today over one of the country’s most heartbreaking and increasingly intractable issues: homelessness. In Grants Pass, Oregon v. Johnson, the justices will weigh whether penalizing people experiencing homelessness is “cruel and unusual” and, therefore, a violation of the Eight Amendment. Jeremiah Hayden, staff reporter for Street Roots in Portland, explains what’s at stake in the case.
  • And in headlines: We’ve got a roundup of climate news in honor of Earth Day, opening statements begin in former President Donald Trump’s criminal hush-money trial, and workers at a Volkswagon plant in Tennessee join the United Auto Workers union.


Show Notes:



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Juanita Tolliver: It’s Monday, April 22nd. I’m Juanita Tolliver.


Josie Duffy Rice: And I’m Josie Duffy Rice. And this is What a Day, where we are taking bets on whether or not Donald Trump falls asleep during opening statements in his hush money trial today. 


Juanita Tolliver: You absolutely know he’s gonna fall asleep, and he’s gonna fall asleep on the part when his own attorneys are speaking. Of course. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah. If you were going to take bets on this, I’m going to assume the old guy sleeps. 


Juanita Tolliver: The old guy. [laughing] [music break] On today’s show, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments about criminal penalties for the homeless. Plus after months and months, the House passed a new round of funding for Ukraine. 


Josie Duffy Rice: But first, today is Earth Day. So we decided to mix things up a bit and bring you headlines first, starting with some climate related news. 


[sung] Headlines. 


Josie Duffy Rice: The White House once again is considering whether President Biden should declare a climate change emergency. The idea is that the declaration could halt offshore drilling, further cut down on greenhouse gas emissions and reduce crude oil exports. But according to Bloomberg, the White House is divided. Some folks in his cabinet are doubtful the emergency order would give the president the authority to make actual changes. And there’s concern that the declaration would immediately be met with legal challenges. But others are excited by the possible votes Biden could garner from climate minded folks and young voters. The White House did not comment directly on its plans, but in a statement said Biden has quote, “delivered on the most ambitious climate agenda in history.” Two years ago, he signed sweeping legislation to address climate change. But environmental activists said the president should do more. 


Juanita Tolliver: And we all remember the devastating fires in Maui last year. Well the Western Fire Chiefs Association recently released a report on the challenges the Maui Fire Department faced responding to the disaster. The report comes about eight months after the Lahaina wildfires killed 101 people in August. Much of the report is focused on the fire department’s need for more resources, and what officials can do to prevent disasters like this in the future. The report also acknowledges how climate change contributed to the fires. The authors detail how Lahaina was once considered a wetland in the 19th century, home to lush forests, shrublands, and fishponds. But as missionaries repurposed Lahaina’s land for agricultural business over time, it became dry and much more prone to wildfires. This transformation of the land, combined with climate change, created the circumstances for the deadliest wildfire the nation has seen in more than a century. 


Josie Duffy Rice: And globally, we are seeing the effects of climate change as well. Last week, parts of the United Arab Emirates got nearly a foot of rain in just one day. That’s more rain than the country usually gets in an entire year. The rainfall was the heaviest the UAE had seen in at least 75 years, when it started collecting that kind of data. The heavy rains brought the city of Dubai home to around three million people to basically a standstill. People had to abandon their cars on the road. The tarmac at the busy Dubai International Airport was submerged. 


Juanita Tolliver: Wow. 


Josie Duffy Rice: And extreme rainfall events like this honestly could become more common as the atmosphere warms, even in typically dry places like the Arabian Peninsula. 


Juanita Tolliver: Yeah, I feel like this is just further evidence that no one, no one can escape the impact of climate change. Like this is something that’s going to change all of our lives. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah. 


Juanita Tolliver: And here are some other headlines that we’re watching this week. Following up on the breaking news story we brought you on Friday. The New York Times is reporting that two Israeli and three Iranian officials have confirmed Israel launched a retaliatory attack on Iran. It’s not clear what damage the strikes caused, but Iranian officials are downplaying it, claiming that Israel’s attack caused no damage at all. The move has renewed calls for de-escalation in the Middle East in hopes of avoiding an all out war. The attack was in response to Iran’s drone and missile strike on Israel earlier this month. Iran has warned that a retaliatory strike from Israel would draw a, quote, “massive response.” We’ll keep you updated on this story as it develops. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Opening statements are set to begin today in former President Donald Trump’s criminal hush money trial, after the final members of the jury were seated on Friday. Once opening statements conclude, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office will begin presenting its case against Trump and calling witnesses. Trump is accused of falsifying business records to cover up payments he made to the adult film star Stormy Daniels in the lead up to the 2016 election. It is the first ever criminal trial of a former president, and is expected to last between six and eight weeks. In a huge win for labor advocates, workers at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee overwhelmingly voted to join the United Auto Workers Union on Saturday. This comes amid the union’s push to organize autoworkers beyond Detroit’s Big three, Ford, General Motors and Stellantis. UAW President Shawn Fain said that he and his fellow organizers have dedicated $40 million over the next two years to their union drive. The next auto plant to hold a UAW election is in Alabama at a Mercedes plant. The vote is set for the week of May 13th. $40 million, Shawn Fain is not playing at all. 


Juanita Tolliver: Also, I’m not mad about these targeted mobilizations in the South in an election year, like–


Josie Duffy Rice: Right. 


Juanita Tolliver: Get it, please. It compounds engagement across the board. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah. It’s incredible. And those are your earth day headlines. We’ll be back with the latest after some ads.




Juanita Tolliver: Now here’s the latest. 


[clip of unnamed CSPAN speaker] On this vote, the yays are 311 and the nays are 112. The bill is passed. 


Juanita Tolliver: Celebrations broke out on the House floor Saturday after the chamber passed $60.8 billion in aid for Ukraine. That vote was bookended by votes on bills to send $26 billion in aid to Israel, including nine billion for humanitarian aid for Gaza and Israel and $8 billion in aid to Taiwan. The package also included a bill to sanction the seizure of Russian assets, as well as to ban TikTok from U.S. app stores in nine months, unless it finds a new owner. It was unusual to have the four bills voted on separately and then combined, but that vote sequence allowed for Ukraine aid to be prioritized and voted on first. And it also allowed 37 Democrats to register their opposition to unrestricted aid for Israel in the midst of the ongoing bombardment of Gaza, without sinking the entire legislative package. 


Josie Duffy Rice: I enjoyed watching the way they kind of made this happen. The world has been waiting for the U.S. to send additional aid to Ukraine for a while now, so this must be a relief for the country. How has Ukrainian President Zelensky responded to this incoming aid? 


Juanita Tolliver: Yeah. As soon as the bill passed, President Zelensky posted his thanks on X writing, quote, “the vital U.S. aid bill passed today by the House will keep the war from expanding, save thousands and thousands of lives and help both of our nations to become stronger.” On Sunday, he reinforced the impact of this critical funding during an interview with Kristen Welker on NBC’s Meet the Press. Take a listen. 


[clip of Kristen Welker] How long should Americans be expected to fund the war in Ukraine? 


[clip of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky] [speaking in Ukrainian] The Americans are not funding the war in Ukraine. They first and foremost, protect freedom and democracy all over Europe. And Ukraine is fighting, and Ukraine is sending its best sons and daughters to the frontline and it reduces the price for all Europe, for all NATO, it reduces the price for everyone, including the U.S., as the leaders in the NATO. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, I’m sure um, some people like my home state Congresswoman, Marjorie Taylor Greene. 


Juanita Tolliver: Big yikes. Big yikes. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah. I’m not proud of it. I’m sure they were pretty heated about this bill passing. How has she reacted to this vote? 


Juanita Tolliver: Representative Greene went on Fox this weekend to unload about the vote on Ukraine aid. And who specifically is to blame? Take a listen. 


[clip of Marjorie Taylor Greene] All of this was possible because of the betrayals of Mike Johnson. Maria, he has completely betrayed the Republican Party. He has completely betrayed Republican voters all over the country. And he is absolutely working for the Democrats, passing the Biden administration’s agenda. So this is a speakership that is completely over with. It’s only Mike Johnson is the one that’s trying to hang on to it and is in complete denial. 


Juanita Tolliver: Now, what’s interesting is that for all of Greene’s bluster, she did not introduce the motion to vacate immediately following the vote on Ukraine aid. And while speaking to reporters after the votes on Saturday, House speaker Mike Johnson said, quote, “I don’t walk around this building worried about a motion to vacate.” You know he’s kind of puffing his chest on this. Part of Johnson’s comfort likely stems from the fact that Democrats are primed to support him if a motion to vacate comes up now that they’ve finally gotten a vote on Ukraine aid. Both progressive and moderate Democrats like Representatives Jared Moskowitz of Florida and Ro Khanna of California, have gone on the record to confirm that they will protect Johnson if a motion to vacate is introduced for a vote. 


Josie Duffy Rice: It’s interesting that he says he doesn’t walk around worrying about a motion to vacate. We know [laughter] Republicans are willing to just oust you for anything. I’d be worried if I ran. Okay, so what is next for this legislative aid package on the Hill? What has to happen before it actually passes? 


Juanita Tolliver: Yeah. Next, the bill heads to the Senate for debate, and voting is set to begin as early as tomorrow afternoon. President Biden is confident that the bill will easily pass through the Senate, and a White House official told Reuters that the administration is, quote, “already finalizing its next assistance package for Ukraine so that it can announce the new tranche of aid soon after the bill becomes law.” That move is also a testament to how urgently the White House wants to get this aid to Ukraine. 


Josie Duffy Rice: We will see what happens there. But just a few steps away from the Capitol, the Supreme Court will hear the case of Grants Pass, Oregon v Johnson, the most important case about homelessness in recent history. The case will determine the constitutionality of anti-camping laws, which ban, among other things, sleeping or storing belongings on public property. In other words, these laws basically make it illegal to be unhoused. Back in 2018, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held in Martin v Boise that these laws constitute cruel and unusual punishment unless municipalities provide sufficient shelter beds. In 2022, that ruling led the appeals court to block an anti-camping law in Grants Pass, Oregon. Now, the Supreme Court will rule on whether these anti-camping laws violate the Constitution. So Juanita, I spoke with Jeremiah Hayden. He’s a staff reporter for Street Roots, which is a newspaper sold by people experiencing homelessness and poverty in Portland, Oregon. He’s actually in DC to cover the oral arguments this week. I started by asking him to talk about Grants Pass, where it is and what the unhoused community is like there. 


Jeremiah Hayden: Grants Pass is a city of 39,000 um residents, it’s in southern Oregon. It’s just about an hour north of the California Oregon border. It’s surrounded by the Siskiyou Cascade mountain ranges, and the Rogue River goes straight through the city. It’s a really pretty area in southern Oregon. Grants Pass, you know, like a lot of cities across America is experiencing an affordable housing crisis. Rents have soared over the past few years. They experienced a global pandemic, like a lot of other cities across the United States and around the world. And, you know, then, of course, that leads to a homelessness crisis. And so they have had, you know, a pretty significant increase in people that are experiencing homelessness. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Can you tell us a little bit about how the city has been handling unhoused people more recently? 


Jeremiah Hayden: It’s worth mentioning that in 2013, um city council, you know, they had a meeting about homelessness, what they call vagrancy issues, and they said that they wanted to make it so uncomfortable for people in Grants Pass that they would move down the road. So they’ve been pretty explicit about what their intentions are here. People now are, you know, required to move every 72 hours. Police officers come into the parks Mondays and Thursdays. They hand out these eviction notices, give tickets to people, the city code you know, it’s pretty intense. People really, literally can’t be anywhere. And to be homeless in the city without getting tickets that add up and, you know, they bar people from sleeping in public spaces. That includes parks, sidewalks, in cars. They can’t use sleeping materials for the purpose of maintaining a temporary place to live. And parks, even just parks, are defined, you know, pretty broadly as city halls, community centers, police and fire stations, parking lots, traffic islands, so anything owned by the city, people can’t be there and be homeless without getting stuck into a cycle of just furthering their poverty. 


Josie Duffy Rice: You basically talk about it in your work, about how the city is trying to turn homelessness into a crime, like you just said, and you gave some examples. There was this couple who was fined $295 for, quote, “scattering rubbish,” which is a pretty vague term for when officers find items near tents. Can you talk a little bit about how these kind of punishments especially affect homeless people or people, you know, suffering from poverty? 


Jeremiah Hayden: Yeah, it’s we’re saying they only affect people experiencing poverty who are homeless because if neighbors come in and want to have, you know, a ice chest full of beer or, you know, food, you know, for a barbecue in the park or whatever, that’s fine because they have some other place to go. And so that’s like kind of a central point of this thing is whether or not if you don’t have another place to go, then it’s a crime. If you do have another place to go, then it’s not a crime. The city has been under this Ninth Circuit Court injunction, for a few years now, and that has made them have to kind of pivot a little bit. So they have these things like scattering rubbish that those fines doubled to like $537 if they’re left unpaid. So it just really adds up. I mean, yeah, the couple I spoke to, you know, has experiences and they’re thousands of dollars in debt, which obviously exacerbates the issues that they’re already experiencing. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Right. So if you are unhoused in Grants Pass right now, are there housing options? Are there housing options for low income people? Like you said that Grants Pass is experiencing an affordable housing crisis. What does that actually look like for low income people looking for a place to live or stay in the city? 


Jeremiah Hayden: Builders don’t really love to create apartments. They don’t like to build apartments because of the um, profit issues, you know, they don’t see it as being so worthwhile. So there are not a lot of apartments. They’re mostly, you know, single family homes. Obviously those have gone up as far as like the rents have gone up. As far as emergency shelter, there is one in town up until last week when the city actually approved a very small temporary emergency shelter. But there’s one in town but it has some very high barriers that keep people from being able to go there. It really is an issue of housing as much as this becomes an issue of a homelessness crisis. 


Josie Duffy Rice: So one of the things that you point out is that this is a matter of involuntary and voluntary homelessness. Can you talk a little bit about that? 


Jeremiah Hayden: Yeah. This is something that comes up in court documents. And the United States actually argued that this should be um remanded and sent back to the Ninth Circuit Court to allow space for people to show how they are involuntarily homeless or voluntarily homeless. So the status piece of this is based on a 1962 decision, Robinson v California, that was based on whether or not a person could be punished for the involuntary status of being addicted to drugs, not whether or not they were using drugs, but whether they were just simply addicted to drugs. And the Supreme Court said no. And it has reiterated over and over again, there’s very strong precedent that people can’t be punished for an involuntary status. So that’s where this voluntary and involuntary homeless term comes from. But the point of it is that people in Grants Pass don’t have a place to go. You know, you read the same news articles I do and probably see a lot of the same comments that I do, and the idea that people just want to be out there, this is how it kind of ends up interacting with this tough on crime kind of rhetoric, is the idea that people just want to be out there. They don’t want to get jobs. People can engage in stereotypes all they like, but that’s just simply not the case if you talk to people that are experiencing this. 


Josie Duffy Rice: I just wanted to get your thoughts on how does this ruling in the case impact the wider unhoused community in the US? Like, it’s not just about Grants Pass, right? 


Jeremiah Hayden: This case is not just about Grants Pass. You can ask any caseworker housing specialist who does the work every day, and they’ll tell you what the barriers are for people who need and want to get housing. And it’s never that the resident doesn’t have, you know, enough legal debt or hasn’t served enough jail time. That’s just simply not how this works. If the Supreme Court decides that cities can punish and cities choose to do that, then we’ll have a much worse homelessness crisis moving forward in, you know, in a few years, it could be much worse than it is today. 


Josie Duffy Rice: That was my conversation with Jeremiah Hayden, staff reporter with Street Roots. We will link his reporting in our show notes below. [music break]




Juanita Tolliver: That’s all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe, leave a review, hug a tree, and tell your friends to listen. 


Josie Duffy Rice: And if you’re into reading and not just Volodymyr Zelensky’s celebratory tweets like me, What a Day is also a nightly newsletter, so check it out and subscribe at I’m Josie Duffy Rice. 


Juanita Tolliver: I’m Juanita Tolliver. 


[spoken together] And Happy Earth Day. 


Juanita Tolliver: Oh, let’s love on this little earth we got–


Josie Duffy Rice: I know. 


Juanita Tolliver: –because I don’t think any other planets have this oxygen composition. 


Josie Duffy Rice: No we’re in trouble. 


Juanita Tolliver: So. [laughing]


Josie Duffy Rice: Honestly, Earth day used to be like joyful when I was a kid, and now it’s ominous. I would say ominous. 


Juanita Tolliver: Yeah. [music break]


Josie Duffy Rice: What a Day is a production of Crooked Media. It’s recorded and mixed by Bill Lancz. Our associate producers are Raven Yamamoto and Natalie Bettendorf. We had production help today from Leo Duran, Greg Walters, and Julia Claire. Our showrunner is Erica Morrison, and our executive producer is Adriene Hill. Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.