This year, the National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week took place from November 11-18. NPLS staff in the Lehigh Valley office had the opportunity to hear an inspirational presentation by Donald Whitehead Jr., the Executive Director of the National Coalition for the Homeless and Co-Founder of Racial Equity Partners. Mr. Whitehead took the stage to address a roomful of advocates and supporters at DeSales University on November 15, 2023.
To the confusion of some, he came to the stage dressed in beat-up, oversized clothes. His boots were worn and cracked. His voice was low and faltering as he talked about his history of struggle with trauma and addiction. As his presentation progressed, his voice strengthened. It became clear he was showing us who he had been so we could contrast that with what he has become: an executive director of a national organization, working for the rights and dignity of unhoused people. His key message was that homelessness is something that happens to people, it does not define who a person is. Unhoused people are members of our communities, and they deserve every opportunity to contribute and to improve their circumstances.
This is something to keep in mind as the population of unhoused people seems to be exploding around us. If you look closely at the places in your community where unhoused people generally gather, you may notice more tents and tarps than in recent years. It’s certainly true in the Lehigh Valley, where the annual Point in Time (PIT) Count conducted in January 2022 found a 36% increase in people experiencing homelessness in the region since 2020, including 50% more families with children and almost twice as many veterans. (See: https://www.lehighvalleynews.com/bethlehem/2023-01-29/is-anybody-home-a-mission-to-count-the-lehigh-valleys-homeless-population)
Many communities have experienced this explosion in the number of unhoused people, but there is no general consensus on a successful solution. It’s not a universally accepted truth that the best way to address a homelessness crisis is to provide more accessible, affordable, and available housing. There is no short-term fix to this long-festering problem, but some approaches are better than others.
The nearby Borough of Pottstown, for example, turned to criminalizing homelessness as a potential solution. The Borough threatened anyone remaining at a certain encampment after December 1, 2023, would be subject to criminal action. Legal advocates at Community Justice Project (CJP) and Legal Aid of Southeastern PA (LASP) filed a lawsuit to prevent the borough from issuing criminal citations, arrests, or fines to people who are living in public spaces and have nowhere else to go. A preliminary injunction hearing in the case of Better Days Ahead Outreach, Inc. et al v. Borough of Pottstown was held on Nov. 16 and 20 at the James A. Byrne U.S. Courthouse in Philadelphia. Judge Mia R. Perez issued a 16-page opinion and 2-page order on November 28, 2023.
In her opinion, Judge Perez cited the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment as the basis of her decision, stating that “so long as the unhoused residents of the encampment do not have a single place where they can lawfully or practically sleep within the Borough, the imposition of criminal sanctions for living, sleeping, or simply existing on Borough-owned land would effectively punish them for something for which they may not be convicted under the Eighth Amendment—that is, their status of homelessness.” [page 10]
We at NPLS congratulate our colleagues at LASP and CJP for bringing this important case. The case established that homeless individuals can’t be criminally charged for sleeping outside if there is no alternative being offered. The case does not, however, establish that housing alternatives must be provided. That problem remains for us to solve as a society. In this season of giving, may we all do what we can to ease the burdens of our unhoused neighbors. We will all sleep easier when everyone in our community is able to find safe, suitable, and permanent shelter.