On homelessness, one Supreme Court justice asked the right question | Opinion

I could never get fully comfortable walking by homeless men and women sleeping on sidewalks in Manhattan last spring when I spent a semester teaching at Columbia University. Despite my feeble attempts to speak with a few of them, and even handing out a few dollars at a time, I found a way to ignore most the way typical New Yorkers learn to. I don’t know if that’s good or bad.

Issac Bailey
Issac Bailey

I can’t even tell you the best constitutional argument against laws allowing governments to effectively criminalize homelessness, making it illegal for homeless people to use “bedding, sleeping bag, or other material used for bedding purposes,” which was what the U.S. Supreme Court was tasked with grappling with this week. I can tell you, though, stripping homeless people of this bare necessity — being able to sleep under a blanket in a park or other public space — is not just cruel, but un-American.

I won’t ever forget the day I walked past a man lying on his back near the corner of Eighth Avenue and 14th Street in Manhattan. He wore scuffed white sneakers, dirty-worn blue jeans and a blue-and-white striped short-sleeved shirt. On his right wrist was a plastic bracelet, resembling the kind you’re given when you check into the hospital. It was red and white. His beard was sprinkled with gray hair. His skin was as dark and leathery as my father’s.

I don’t know how much hair was on his head; it was covered by a blue knit cap on a 50-degree late-April day maybe an hour after a rain shower had passed. I think he was alive, sleeping. More honestly, I tried not to wonder too much about him, if he was somebody’s father or grandfather, somebody’s uncle, cousin, lost love, or suffering from a medical condition.

That’s what is at the heart of laws like the one city officials in Grants Pass, Oregon are trying to implement — an attempt to prevent the public from being bothered by even the sight of fellow human beings who happen to be homeless. A decision in the court case would have ripple effects around the country. Though the problem is more visible in places such as New York, for the past couple of decades I’ve watched Myrtle Beach struggle with the homelessness issue as well, with local activists fighting to feed homeless people in public and the city trying to deal with homeless men and women who can’t or won’t live in shelters — but never getting it quite right or resolving it.

I’ll admit, there are no easy solutions to this problem. Homeless encampments, if allowed to flourish without challenge, can become more than a nuisance. They can morph into a danger for homeless people, as well as those who aren’t homeless. I’ve seen that occur. Those struggling to survive on the streets have a variety of ailments that can metastasize if not treated, including drug and alcohol abuse and mental health problems. Some have been kicked out of homes because they’ve been ostracized by families who don’t like that they are gay or trans. Others end up homeless because of outrageous home prices and a dearth of affordable housing. Some have been lured to places like Myrtle Beach by moderate weather and the promise of plentiful jobs that never materialize.

The problem can feel intractable. Yet, there’s no way to convincingly, or compassionately, argue that stripping homeless people of the ability to provide themselves even the barest protections from the elements is not “cruel and unusual punishment,” one of the questions the U.S. Supreme Court is considering.

“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?” Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked during oral arguments Monday. “Are they supposed to kill themselves not sleeping?”

Everyday citizens have a right to crave tranquil streets and public parks. But that can’t happen at the expense of those struggling to simply survive.

Issac Bailey is a McClatchy Opinion writer in North and South Carolina.