The Supreme Court Says It's Okay to Kick the Homeless When They Are Down


Opinion. I was in Washington, D.C. for Independence Day this year. Typically, when I’m in the nation’s capital, I am there on business with seldom time to sightsee. Since the 4th of July is a national holiday, I had time to do some sightseeing, so I took the Metro down to Arlington National Cemetery.

As I rode the tour tram, the tour guide mentioned that we would soon pass the grave of Ira Hayes, the World War II hero who is buried in Section 34 in the cemetery. Hayes, a citizen of the Pima Nation, is also enshrined in the Marine Corps War Memorial near the Pentagon, which is within walking distance from Arlington National Cemetery.

A survivor of the Phoenix Indian Boarding School, Hayes fought in the Battle of Iwo Jima, a brutal battle that lasted 36 days and resulted in the deaths of some 7,000 Americans. A Marine paratrooper, Hayes was photographed after the United States captured Iwo Jima with other troop members raising the flag on Iwo Jima. The famous photo served as the basis of the memorial.

Hayes gained further fame posthumously with country legend Johnny Cash’s rendition of Ballad of Ira Hayes, written by Roger La Farge. The song recounts the battle of Iwo Jima, noting: “There they battled up Iwo Jima hill, two hundred and fifty men, but only twenty-seven lived.” After the war, Hayes received an Medal of Honor award for his valor and given a hero’s welcome.

Back on the reservation in Arizona, Hayes found poor living conditions. In the early 1950s, he was one of thousands of Native Americans who entered the relocation program that moved tribal citizens from their reservations to large cities. Hayes moved from Arizona to Chicago, where he did not fare well. Even with his fame as a national hero, he suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and alcoholism. He was arrested in the Skid Row section of Chicago for a drunk and disorderly charge. In total, Hayes was arrested 39 times.

Tragically, Hayes died at the age of 32 and laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.

On Independence Day, as the tour guide pointed out Hayes’ grave, I thought about his history and his multiple arrests. Somehow, my mind connected the dots to the recent Supreme Court June 28 ruling in City of Grants Pass, Oregon v. Johnson that allows homeless people to be arrested if they decide to sleep in public.

The case involved Grant Pass, a conservative town about 245 miles south of Portland, Ore., close to the Oregon-California border. The core part of the case was about whether the city violated the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment when it arrests, fines, and jails unhoused people for sleeping outside.

The case arose because the city’s charity-run shelter stipulated that there was no smoking allowed and if you stayed there, you had to attend religious services. Some homeless people resisted and took the case to court.

The Supreme Court ruling overturned a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that punishing people for doing something they cannot help is cruel and unusual punishment. “As long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter,” the appeals court wrote.

I find the high court’s Grants Pass decision disturbing. Causing more pain to homeless people is like kicking them when they are already down.

Many Native Americans, whose ancestors occupied this land, are homeless. While Native Americans represent less than 2% of the overall population of the United States, there are places such as in South Dakota, Alaska, New Mexico, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Minnesota, where they represent up to 10% of the homeless population.

In Seattle, the Chief Seattle Club, a Native-led housing and human services agency, does great work getting Native Americans off the streets and into housing. The agency provides a reminder that Native people were never homeless before 1492, For those who forgot your history, 1492 is when Columbus arrived in this hemisphere.

The agency says in Seattle, Native people are seven times more likely than white people to experience homelessness.

After the Grants Pass decision was announced, Derrick Belgarde (Siletz), executive director of Chief Seattle Club, said that Native people represent less than 2% of the population in Seattle and King County, Washington, but in 2020 represented 32% of our chronically homeless.

“SCOTUS’s decision is just another example of how the United States refuses to live up to its promises to Native peoples. Native peoples in Seattle, King County, and across the country continue to experience the highest rates of homelessness stemming from removal and relocation policies the United States put in place, yet they refuse to be accountable and are passing the buck for cities to figure out,” Belgarde said in a statement.

We know there are numerous reasons why people become unhoused and the vast majority of those reasons have nothing to do with being lazy or being deadbeats. Some just could not afford housing and began sleeping in their cars. Some, like Ira Hayes, are heavily afflicted with alcoholism and become homeless.

The Supreme Court’s decision in the Grants Pass case is a slap in the face to those who are already down. Instead of kicking them while they’re down, we should be offering them a hand and helping lift them up.

Thayék gde nwéndëmen – We are all related.

About the Author: “Levi \”Calm Before the Storm\” Rickert (Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation) is the founder, publisher and editor of Native News Online. Rickert was awarded Best Column 2021 Native Media Award for the print\/online category by the Native American Journalists Association. He serves on the advisory board of the Multicultural Media Correspondents Association. He can be reached at levi@nativenewsonline.net.”

Contact: levi@nativenewsonline.net



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