Homelessness shouldn’t be a crime. Supreme Court case could devastate Columbus youth.

More than 3,000 youth, ages 14-24, will experience homelessness in Franklin County this year.

Published as an op.ed in The Columbus Disatch, April 23, 2024.

On Monday, April 22, the Supreme Court of the United States will begin hearing oral arguments on the case of Gloria Johnson, v. the city of Grants Pass, Oregon, a case that will determine whether a local government can arrest or fine people for sleeping outside when adequate shelter is not available. Criminalization is not a solution to homelessness. Arrests, fines, jail time, and criminal records make it more difficult for individuals experiencing homelessness to access the affordable housing, health services, employment, and support necessary to exit homelessness.

For the 3,000 youth under the age of 24 who experience homelessness in Columbus each year, this case has the potential to make their impossible situations even more dire. Huckleberry House is a Columbus non-profit organization that serves at-risk and homeless youth ages 12 to 24. Last year, 1,239 youth received Huckleberry House services, and another 1,429 individuals requested connections to resources.

Young people already face unique challenges in accessing the essential systems, services, and resources necessary to their development as adolescents and transition into adulthood. Adding arrests, fines, jail time, and criminal records to this list of barriers would almost guarantee chronic, lifelong homelessness for our community’s at-risk youth. They often encounter specific barriers to finding adequate housing, such as the scarcity of youth-appropriate shelter, narrow eligibility requirements, and prioritization for populations other than youth, as well as limited access to age-appropriate services.

Our city’s well-documented affordable housing crisis is forcing more people, including youth, into homelessness. Young people cannot afford their own apartments. And in many cases, their families can no longer afford to support their basic needs.

In the past month, we have seen an increase in teens staying in our teen shelter because their families have become homeless. Knowing their children are safe with us gives parents peace of mind while they figure out their next steps. For these parents, the risk of arrest, fines or jail time could impact entire families already separated because of challenging circumstances.

We must urge policymakers at all levels of government to oppose the criminalization of homelessness and instead support long-term solutions to the affordable housing and homelessness crisis. We know what works to end youth homelessness: providing individuals with developmentally appropriate support including case management, crime victim services, education and employment programs, and counseling; immediate access to safe shelter; transitional housing that prepares youth to live independently; and the support of their community.

Once a year, Huckleberry House asks friends and supporters to sleep outside for one night. The goal is to get uncomfortable for a night and reflect on what unhoused youth experience in our city. This year when we gather to sleep outside, there will be another, very consequential, layer for us to consider.


Sonya Thesing is the executive director of Huckleberry House, a Columbus non-profit that shelters, supports and guides youth navigating challenges. In 2023, the organization provided over 35,000 nights of shelter in its teen crisis shelter and transitional living program.

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