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Tents line both sides of an encampment on the 1100 block of S Deplanes St in South Loop, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024.

Tents line both sides of an encampment on the 1100 block of S. Desplaines St. in South Loop, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024.

Anthony Vazquez

A U.S. Supreme Court case could affect homeless people in Chicago and Illinois

In 2015, Robert Henderson returned from panhandling to the viaduct under which he was sleeping on Chicago’s West Side. He was unhoused at the time.

“When I came back, I saw a blue garbage truck,” recalled Henderson, now 70. “When I finally looked around, everything that I owned at that particular time was thrown in the garbage truck.”

His belongings included blood pressure medicine, his Social Security and Medicaid cards, a copy of his birth certificate, family photos and clippings of loved ones’ obituaries.

With help from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Henderson sued and settled a case against the city of Chicago on the grounds that tossing his belongings violated Illinois’ Homeless Bill of Rights, enacted in 2013.

Now, Henderson, who has lived in a Chicago Housing Authority apartment for the past seven years, is using his experience to speak out against a high-profile case on the U.S. Supreme Court docket. City of Grants Pass, Oregon v. Johnson will determine if municipalities can use local ordinances to ban homeless people from sleeping outside with a blanket or other bedding materials. Illinois advocates say if the high court sides with Grants Pass, it could make it easier for municipalities to criminalize homelessness in the state and throughout the U.S. Oral arguments begin April 22.

The case originates in the small Oregon town, which in 2013 decided to address its “vagrancy problem” by penalizing people who are unhoused. In 2020 and 2023, two lower courts ruled in favor of the unhoused respondents. But Grants Pass filed a petition for the Supreme Court to reverse one of those decisions. The high court chose to hear the case, worrying unhoused people and advocates throughout the country.

Earlier this month, nearly 30 Illinois advocacy groups filed an amicus brief in the case, saying that fining or jailing those who sleep outside will not help fix homelessness.

“We want to make sure that the Supreme Court sees that solution-driven approaches are more effective and that these punitive approaches really don’t do anything to solve homelessness,” said Camilla Krauss, an attorney with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and one of the drafters of the brief.

Krauss said while Chicago and Illinois don’t currently have anti-camping ordinances, if the Grants Pass ruling is reversed, “it could really open the door for other cities including Chicago and other cities in Illinois to follow that model.”

In addition to the shortage of subsidized and affordable housing in the city and state, Krauss said the extreme temperatures in the area also concern advocates.

“Chicago and Illinois experience really extreme temperatures, so it could be incredibly harmful to people’s health to be penalized for using blankets and other bedding materials when shelter is unavailable,” Krauss said.

The Network: Advocating Against Domestic Violence was one of the groups that signed onto the friend-of-the-court brief. Jackie Koriath, the organization’s director of housing advocacy, said a ruling in favor of Grants Pass could also worsen outcomes for those who face domestic violence.

“Gender-based violence is the leading cause of homelessness for women and particularly for survivors,” Koriath said, adding that in 2022 more than a third of the calls to the Network’s hotline were from those requesting shelter.

“A lot of people that are looking to leave violent situations are trying to find shelter, and often shelter is not available,” Koriath said. “When we’re looking at a case that has the potential to penalize people for being unsheltered, it’s very dangerous for survivors, given the landscape of emergency housing options in Illinois.”

For Robert Henderson, a reversal in Grants Pass v. Johnson could also mean straining the criminal justice system and saddling taxpayers. “[They] gotta pay for that — if you want to lock them up.”

He had a message for the Supreme Court: “I hope they would be more compassionate than these lawmakers out here trying to pass these laws. [The homeless] are already down in the dumps and hurting.”

Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on X @estheryjkang.

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