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Pa. Democrats rail against Supreme Court homeless decision

A group of lawmakers stand at a lectern.
Ben Wasserstein
Democratic lawmakers address the Grants Pass v. Johnson decision.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Grants Pass v. Johnson that cities can punish people for sleeping in public has some Democrats in Pennsylvania seething.

The high court said laws regulating camping on public property does not constitute “cruel and unusual punishment,” which is prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.

That’s not sitting well with Democratic state lawmakers.

“We are here today because the Supreme Court, in its infinite wisdom, decided that banning sleeping in public is not a cruel and unusual punishment for our homeless neighbors but instead, incarcerating individuals, issuing them mounting fees and fines for the mere act of sleeping, does nothing to address the root causes of homelessness,” said Rep. Lindsay Powell, D-Allegheny. “It only perpetuates the cycle.”

Powell was joined by multiple senators and representatives, including Rep. Izzy Smith-Wade-El.

He served on the Lancaster County Homelessness Coalition and looked through years of data related to homelessness.

He is vehemently against the decision.

“Until and unless we are providing people with homes and an opportunity to stay in those homes and get the support that they need, we’re not going to lessen this problem at all,” he said. “We’re just going to shuffle it around. And the truth is that people, human beings, veterans, pregnant mothers, are not pieces on a checkerboard. They’re human beings and they deserve a home.”

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In Pennsylvania, roughly 15,000 people are homeless. In some cities, this has led to encampments of tents and semi-permanent structures on public land.

In Harrisburg, an encampment along Riverfront Park was broken up in April. City officials became concerned the area was unsafe due to leftover drug paraphernalia and trash.

In Philadelphia, officials cleared out an encampment on the sidewalks of Kensington Avenue.

Smith-Wade-El and many other Democratic members signed on to a co-sponsorship memo seeking to clarify that homelessness can not be criminalized in Pennsylvania, but rather, housing should be provided.

He noted the significant investment in housing and human services in Gov. Josh Shapiro’s proposed budget as a mode to provide what is necessary.

A companion bill sponsored by Sens. Nikil Saval, D-Philadelphia, Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, Amanda Cappelletti, D-Delaware, and Timothy Kearney, D-Delaware, will also be introduced.

But ensuring homelessness isn’t criminalized wasn’t the only bill lawmakers were floating.

Cappelletti also promoted her bill to provide rent protections. That has been in the Senate Urban Affairs and Housing Committee since March.

Powell promoted her bill to establish an affordable homeownership program and others including one that would seal eviction records, one that would create a Right to Counsel program and one combatting homelessness across the state, known as the CHAMP Act.

Republicans Rich Irvin of Huntingdon County and Frank Farry of Bucks County are chairs on House and Senate committees that focus on housing issues. Neither responded to requests for comment.

Read more from our partners, WITF.