News Brief: Media, Billionaires’ Attacks on Homeless People May Pay Off Big at Supreme Court

Citations Needed | March 6, 2024 | Transcript

Citations Needed
18 min readMar 6, 2024
Courthouse in Josephine County, Oregon, where Grants Pass is located. (Via KDRV)


Nima Shirazi: Welcome to a Citations Needed News Brief. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: You can follow Citations Needed on Twitter @citationspod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of the show if you are so inclined through All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated. As we are 100% listener funded, we do these News Briefs in between our regularly scheduled full-length episodes of Citations Needed. Thank you for joining us today.

Today, Adam, we are going to be talking about a really critical Supreme Court case that is coming up in April that may very well redefine how homelessness and poverty is understood and criminalized in this country. So the court case is called City of Grants Pass, Oregon v. Gloria Johnson. It’s the Grants Pass v. Johnson case that effectively is to determine whether constitutionally, a local government, city, municipality, state can make it a crime to involuntarily be homeless, to not have a home, to live outside and unsheltered when there is no available shelter. So that’s the kind of basic construct of the case. And in Grants Pass, it really had to do with a specific charge of camping. This idea of a kind of broad definition of what camping is to therefore criminalize certain aspects of when people are deemed to be quote-unquote, “camping,” which effectively is going to outlaw being without a home, and therefore further criminalize, by law, being poor.

Adam: Yeah, it makes the use of blankets, pillows, cardboard boxes, to protect yourself from the elements, illegal. It expands the definition of camping basically means anything protecting you from the elements is camping, and therefore illegal. So you have to basically freeze to death outside or leave the city, because there’s not sufficient housing and shelters. And so our guest, Jesse Rabinowitz, is working to draw attention to this case, and the broader media narratives and political narratives that have gotten us to this extreme case, where now the Supreme Court is on the verge of ruling that being homeless, by definition, is a crime that can subject one to fine and incarceration.

Nima: So let’s get right to it. We’re going to bring on our guest, Jesse Rabinowitz, who is the campaign and communications director at the National Homelessness Law Center in Washington, DC. He’s a longtime housing advocate in DC, and it is great to have him on the show today. Jesse, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Jesse Rabinowitz: Thanks so much for having me.

Adam: So yes, I want to begin by talking about what’s at stake in this specific upcoming Supreme Court ruling, and then kind of broaden it out to the broader media narratives and how politicians are both propelling and also responding to those media narratives. Because obviously, the implications of a Supreme Court ruling are far greater than just one small town in Oregon. So can we start by talking about the stakes of this case, and how it sort of is in relation to the other district court case of Martin v. Boise from 2018, in terms of how we’re criminalizing, quite specifically, without apparently criminalizing, being poor?

Jesse Rabinowitz: Yeah, let’s start with some background on the case. So this case starts in Grants Pass, Oregon. Grants Pass is a small town with about 40,000 people, half of the rental households there pay more than they can afford in rent. And when people can’t afford rent, they often have to live outside or in their cars. There’s no low-barrier shelter in the town of Grants Pass. There’s a Gospel Rescue Mission, where folks have to work six hours a day, six hours a week, pay $100 a month for the pleasure of staying there and go to church services twice a day. And if you’re too old or too sick to work, you can’t stay there at all, which basically means there’s nowhere for many people in Grants Pass to stay but in their cars or outside. Instead of responding to homelessness with proven solutions like housing or shelters, the city of Grants Pass decided to use tickets for upwards of $350–

Adam: Jesus.

Jesse Rabinowitz

Jesse Rabinowitz: To punish people for staying outside. And they took an incredibly broad definition of what camping means to really mean things like using a blanket or a pillow or a sleeping bag or a piece of cardboard. The elected officials in Grants Pass have been quite clear that their intention is to make homelessness in Grants Pass uncomfortable so that people will move somewhere else. People experiencing homelessness in Grants Pass didn’t think this was fair. So they, with our partners, brought this case to court. And the Ninth Circuit Court agreed with us and this assessment that punishing people for staying outside when they have nowhere else to go is cruel and unusual. Unfortunately, business interests and politicians really believe incorrectly that they can arrest and criminalize their way out of homelessness and petitioned the Supreme Court to hear this case. So in April, the Supreme Court will be hearing this case, and this is the most important Supreme Court case about homelessness in at least 40 years.

Adam:Yeah, because this sort of general idea is that, and we’ve talked about this on the show before, is that the strategy is just basically for want of a better term a terror regime, you kind of make being homeless miserable in a specific city, using police batons, crackdowns, sweeps, whatever sort of euphemism one wants to use, clean up, I know, they like to say that as if they’re kind of human refuse. That way, they either freeze to death and die, or they are forced to another city. And so it’s sort of no longer your problem. And that seems to be the general ethos. And that, of course, creates a race to the bottom where cities compete to see who could be more cruel, right? It seems like an obvious moral hazard, right?

Jesse Rabinowitz: Absolutely. And I think so much of this is rooted in the misconception that homelessness is a choice, that if we make homelessness uncomfortable enough, as if living outside in the middle of winter wasn’t already incredibly uncomfortable, people will suddenly choose to not be homeless anymore.

Adam: That’s how it works, right?

Jesse Rabinowitz: Exactly.

Adam: It’s a lifestyle choice.

Jesse Rabinowitz: And what we know about Grants Past that, that half of the rental households are rent-burdened is actually true across the country. A recent Harvard study said 50% of American households pay more than 30% of their income on rent. This, homelessness is certainly a choice. It is a choice made every day by our elected officials who fail to address the housing crisis in this country.

Nima: Yeah, I mean, it really kind of harkens back to anti-vagrancy laws that just you know, if there’s visible poverty, if there’s visible suffering, if there’s visible kind of systemic oppression in the form of not giving people what they need to live and to survive, that is then a blight, right, that needs to be removed from sight, and therefore you kind of institute these laws. Now, Jesse, I’d love to hear from you what makes this Supreme Court case so critical in determining basically, at the federal level, this idea that up until now, homelessness has certainly been treated like a crime, but maybe not legally authorized as a crime in many places, right. So it’s kind of de facto rather than de jure criminality, right, homeless people, people who don’t have houses, don’t have homes to go, to are deemed to be criminals and treated as such. But the law doesn’t kind of note poverty itself as a crime, and this could kind of change that dynamic. Can you tell us about some of those stakse? I know, we’ve been hearing about how crucial this is, but like that specific change, and how it actually connects to the kind of ideas of cruel and unusual punishment and prohibitions against that in our Constitution. What are those level stakes here?

Jesse Rabinowitz: That’s a big question. I think what we have to understand is this case is not only about the 250,000 Americans who sleep outside each night, this is about the millions of Americans who are one missed paycheck or one accident away from experiencing homelessness. And as you mentioned, because this is the Supreme Court. This has national implications. We know that there is a concerted, well funded, rightwing effort backed by billionaires to criminalize homelessness throughout the country. This case could go a long way in either saying you cannot criminalize people for staying outside, or give states the ability to crack down further and push this carceral, harmful approach to criminalization which actually makes people experience homelessness for longer.

Adam: Wait, are you trying to say that a $350 fine doesn’t help people get out of poverty?

Jesse Rabinowitz: Not even a little bit.

Adam: Yeah, it’s funny how that works. Because again, I have $0–they should call it the getting blood from a turnip strategy. I want to talk a bit about, if you could, the media narratives around this. This is a media narrative podcast. There hasn’t been a lot of coverage of this particular issue. For the most part it’s either kind of lurid, shocking, tabloid, local news stuff, centering one’s homelessness status in a headline, you know, ‘Homeless person stabbed so and so’ or ‘Homeless person is caught doing so such and such.’ But of course, we never see headlines saying ‘Housed person murders wife’ or ‘Housed person is arrested for,’ you know, securities fraud, right? So it’s either inciting violence or it’s this maybe occasionally 10% you’ll kind of get this liberal handwringing, kind of personal interest stuff, which is fine. I have no problem with that. But generally speaking, as we’ve covered on the show, there’s a lot of demagoguery and misinformation around this particular topic. And like you said, it is framed in this kind of moral context as if it’s just millions of people who are just either drug-addled zombies or just lazy.

There’s been a concerted effort fueled by VC money, real estate interests, and rightwing and frankly, Democratic politicians, I think we would be remiss not to point out, where it’s gotten more hardcore lately. So in the last two years, there’s been an effort by the Miami City Council, it was voted on but I think it was later overturned only because of I think NIMBY concerns. They wanted to turn an island off the coast of Florida into a homeless camp effectively. And then there was an op-ed by former NBA All Star Bill Walton advocating a camp in the middle of the California desert for homeless people. Ron DeSantis now has just revealed a plan to build camps for homeless people. Now, what they’ll say is, they’ll say, and this is I think, is kind of a clever marketing thing that I want to get your take on. They’ll say, Oh, it’s voluntary. But then when you read the fine print, you realize everywhere that isn’t the camp, it’s illegal for them to sleep in by pain of jail or police abuse. And when anywhere, but the camp is illegal to exist in by definition, or to sleep in in any meaningful way, like you said, with a blanket or a pillow, then it’s no longer voluntary. Then it is actually definitionally an internment camp. So if you could I want you to talk about what these kind of fringe solutions, quote-unquote, “solutions,” which again, are always kind of laundered through this voluntary choice rhetoric, even though we all know that’s bullshit, talk about the more extreme end of the spectrum, if you could, and how, even like I think 10 years ago, this wasn’t really even imaginable, that as the housing crisis gets more acute, and we see more visible poverty, the solutions really seem like they’re becoming more overtly cruel and fascistic.

Jesse Rabinowitz: Yeah, I want to say maybe three things. One is to note that Donald Trump is running explicitly on a campaign of throwing people experiencing homelessness into internment camps. And that is terrifying. I don’t think the things that you’re talking about, these internment camps strategies, are fringe anymore. Cities and states across the country have passed legislation to do this. It’s largely being promoted by the Cicero Institute, which is funded and backed by tech fund billionaire Joe Lonsdale. And this template legislation has generally four components. One is camping is illegal. One is the creation of internment camps. So if you do sleep outside, the only place you can sleep is an internment camp, which is not voluntary. Another part is the gutting of housing that ends homelessness, so actually taking money away from proven solutions on homelessness. And the fourth component is the requirement that police are involved in homeless outreach not to address people’s needs, but to enforce anti-camping laws. So those components are extreme.

I want to talk about Kentucky, who’s working on a more extreme version of this, that in addition to those clauses would enable people to enact Stand Your Ground laws. If there’s a homeless person staying on your property, you could use force and even deadly force to remove a person experiencing homelessness from your property. So all of these things are extreme, but that is just unfathomable. And Arizona is working on, you know, I think states are trying to outdo each other. Arizona added a new provision that says if there’s a hotel for people experiencing homelessness, or if there’s a hotel, where people are staying, and also being used as shelter for people experiencing homelessness, you have to put a giant sign outside that says homeless people are staying here. This continual desire to demonize and ostracize people experiencing homelessness is harmful, it’s dangerous, and most importantly, doesn’t end homelessness.

Adam: Well, that’s the issue, right? Because like, this reminds me so much of this like so-called “border crisis” panic, where it’s like the existence of unwanted humans is seen as this thing that just kind of fell from the sky that has no root cause, it has no origin. It has no social solutions or humane solutions. And every solution we have is batons, bars, and cages, right? Sort of it’s cops and cages, button them up all the way down no matter what. And you see this often when it comes to people talking about alternative solutions. So your organization obviously tries to present that and in many ways, maybe it’s a bit of a, you know, you’re kind of yelling into the void. Because of course, the media largely presents this kind of anodyne, you know, it’s like all the euphemisms we get, right, ‘secure the border,’ ‘tighten the border,’ that obscure the human costs, just like ‘cracking down,’ ‘homeless camp sweeps,’ these anodyne terms necessarily make it look like these are kind of harm-free measures. And the human face is just completely obscured or diminished. I want to ask you, from the advocacy work you do, obviously, there’s a bunch of people working on housing solutions that are not punitive. Obviously, on a state level, especially I know New York, has seen great strides, have made an effort, I know Washington DC is trying to do that. And obviously y’all work on that. And that has to sort of be an alternative to this punitive approach. So from y’all’s perspective, what do you find is the general, just talking to lawmakers and the public, what do you think is the kind of biggest misinformation or misconception that people have about the cops in cages approach versus like, Yes, this is not a moral criminal problem, it is a problem of not having sufficient housing?

Jesse Rabinowitz: I think that the biggest misconception that folks have is that homelessness is a choice. And homelessness is an individual failing, when in reality, homelessness is caused by housing that’s too expensive and wages that aren’t enough. But by continuing to individualize the problem, people think there are individual solutions like a jail cell or punishment or a courtroom. But realistically, we have to get to the root of this. And the root of this is that Americans can’t afford to pay rent. I think Miami is a really interesting counterexample to Grants Pass. Miami until recently, it was under a consent decree that basically said they couldn’t criminalize people experiencing homelessness if there was no shelter available. So instead of responding with jail cells, Miami was forced to respond with more housing and more shelters, and they reduce homelessness by half. This shows that another way to address homelessness is possible. It’s so disappointing to watch our elected officials, Democrats and Republicans, throw up their hands and say, ‘There’s nothing we can do, the only thing we can do is arrest people,’ when in reality, there’s so much they can do. We saw during the pandemic, that essentially overnight, cities opened up hotels to house homeless folks. There’s no reason we can’t do that now, except we lack the political will to do so. We know that when folks are connected to housing and services, they don’t live outside anymore. And in DC, where I’m based, 95% of people experiencing homelessness in permanent supportive housing stay housed after their first year. This idea that housing doesn’t work is simply not true.

Adam: You see this a lot in California, this idea that like there’s this alternative universe, where we’ve tried to do this great socialist experiment, and it failed. And it’s obviously frustrating, because that’s not true at all.

Nima: We tried decriminalization for 15 minutes. And so now we have to go back to 500 years of carceral solutions, but that 15 minutes was never actually anything close to what is claimed. [Laughs]

Adam: Right.

Jesse Rabinowitz: And I think there’s an important point in there that I saw in my work as a homeless outreach worker in DC, working primarily with folks who lived in tents outside. They were living outside because there was no shelter, or the shelter had too many rules. They didn’t want to live outside, but it was the best of the many bad choices they had. But when they got housing, they thrived. And they stayed housed. So for the people who are fortunate enough to get housing, it works. And I wish people could see that side of the story, instead of only focusing on the folks who live outside. There are hundreds of thousands of people across this country who we have ended homelessness for. Unfortunately, people are entering into homelessness faster than we can get them into housing. But that doesn’t mean the solution doesn’t work. It just means we have to go further upstream and address the dire lack of housing that people can afford across the country.

Nima: Yeah, exactly. It’s that the solutions are there. It just needs more resourcing. That needs to be the primary focus rather than just locking people up. I mean, there, there just seems like, I mean, we’ve talked about this on the show for years now, there’s no political downside to criminalizing people who don’t have money or power, which it seems is routinely kind of a motivating force. And even when there are, let’s say, minor steps taken toward a more just society, things like bail reform, things like decriminalizing drugs, again, it’s this Oh, well, we didn’t even implement the full plan. But now it’s 15 minutes later, and there’s a homeless person on my corner. And so therefore now I’m Mr. Cop. And so, you know, I think it’s interesting, the Grants Pass case happening in Oregon, while at the same time, there are steps being taken to recriminalize drugs after Oregon’s referendum, Measure 110, decriminalized drugs. And so I’d love to hear, Jesse, how you see all of these kinds of even minor steps toward a more just way to live, a more humane way that we all live together. It’s not even about treating other people in a certain kind of way. It’s about that we should all be treated a certain kind of way. And that, as you said, whether it is drug use, or homelessness or whatever, that these things are not moral failings, but actually, there need to be society-wide, system-wide solutions.

Adam: Can I ask you a follow-up, sorry, about substance use? Because that seems like that’s the elephant in the room for a lot of people where the argument now, the popular argument amongst them, Mike Shellenberger dipshits and all their–especially in California, I used to be a columnist for The San Francisco Chronicle. So I’ve heard all these arguments–that this is about substance use, this is about drugs, and that you need to crack down on fentanyl and crack down on more extreme drugs. Now, I think it’s probably fair to say that that substance usage in terms of the quality or the hardcore-ness of the substance has probably gotten worse of late and that is fueling a lot of these issues, especially issues like mania, not sleeping, etc. Like that seems perfectly plausible. Just anecdotally, I feel like I’ve observed that, it’s probably true. But of course, you circle back to the same issue, which is that no drug recovery is possible without a home. So either way, you circle back to the issue of giving people a home. Can you talk about what we sort of view as this kind of substance abuse, sleight of hand or kind of distraction, where it totally shifts the conversation back into a moral failing?

Jesse Rabinowitz: Sure, I’ll say two things. One is that most people who use drugs will never be homeless. And most people experiencing homelessness don’t use drugs. At the same time, the slide into homelessness is really hard. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have to sleep outside, there’s violence, there’s noise, there’s weather, it’s awful. And sometimes, people need to use different things to help them cope, we all have our coping strategies. And what we know to be true is that when someone gets connected to housing and in housing, they’re able to get healthcare, they’re able to get access to mental health and substance abuse treatment programs, they’re able to reconnect with family. But none of those things are possible without the foundation and the safety and security that housing provides. So the first step is housing. That doesn’t mean it’s the last step. But as a social worker, I know that people who are living outside, the first-order priority is to have them not live outside anymore, and have them live in a place with their own bed, and a medicine cabinet, and a door they can lock, and from there, everything else will follow.

Nima: Jesse, it’s been so great to hear from you on all of this. Before we let you go, I’d love to hear what the National Homelessness Law Project is doing these days, and how folks might be able to spread the word, get involved, support you all. And obviously, as the Supreme Court case looms large, really how people can get involved.

Jesse Rabinowitz: Absolutely. We have set up a website,, where folks can go to learn more about the case, and to take action. We anticipate the court to have the oral arguments towards the end of April. So folks can stay tuned for a day of rally and more ways to support around that. But we really do see this case as just one part of our work to fight the criminalization of homelessness. As I mentioned before, powerful, rightwing-backed organizations like the Cicero Institute are pushing a jail first, housing last solution across the country. And we need people to join our movement, not only to fight the criminalization of homelessness, but to end homelessness once and for all. And to be honest, the best-case scenario is that the Supreme Court says you can’t punish people for living outside, which is important, but doesn’t end homelessness. So this is an important time to use this. Most Americans are actually struggling to pay rent, and want our elected officials to do something meaningful to address the homelessness and housing crises across the country.

Nima: Well, I think that is a great place to leave it. We’ve been speaking with Jesse Rabinowitz, campaign and communications director at the National homelessness Law Center. Jesse, thank you so much again for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Jesse Rabinowitz: Thanks so much.

Nima: Well, it was great to chat with you. And that will do it for this Citations Needed News Brief. Of course, you can follow the show onTwitter @citationspod, Facebook Citations Needed, and to become a supporter of the show if you are able to and are so inclined through Again, we are completely listener funded so we appreciate all the help we can get there if you’re able to give it but that will do it. We will be back very soon with more full-length episodes of Citations Needed. So stay tuned, but until then I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed’s senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. The newsletter is by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Mahnoor Imran. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.


This Citations Needed News Brief was released on Wednesday, March 6, 2024.



Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.