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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Advocates fear dire consequences for island homeless if Supreme Court upholds local laws in Oregon

Justice Sonia Sotomayor sits for a group photo at the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, April 23, 2021. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

By The Star Staff

It would be devastating for Puerto Rico if municipalities imitated the city of Grants Pass in Oregon and decided to make sleeping in public spaces a crime, the spokeswoman for a local homeless advocacy group said Tuesday.

The legality of a series of municipal ordinances in Grants Pass is before the U.S. Supreme Court, and a final decision, which would set a precedent for homeless policy throughout the country, should be made this summer (see related story on page 6).

“If we are saying that you have no place to spend the night and they are going to turn the inability to buy or rent a house into a crime, you are making it more difficult for a person to be placed in housing since a person with a criminal history is not eligible for public housing unless several years have passed since the sentence,” said Belinda Hill, executive director of Solo por Hoy, an organization that addresses homelessness in Puerto Rico. “This would have devastating consequences for homeless people.”

Hill said a Supreme Court ruling in favor of the ordinances would pave the way for other cities to do what Grants Pass did. Those municipal laws say, among other things, that if a person takes shelter or wraps themselves in a blanket, it is because they are trying to spend the night in a public place, which, if validated by the Supreme Court, would already be a crime that could land them in jail.

California Governor Gavin Newsom joined the lawsuit filed in 2018 by three homeless residents of Grants Pass as a friend of the court to argue that the government must have a comprehensive plan to close city homeless encampments. This would mean that funds and housing units would be available to move homeless people into housing.

“In Puerto Rico, right now, even having the resources of housing vouchers, we cannot locate many homeless people because there is a lack of affordable housing, at the cost of the amount of money available with the vouchers,” said Hill, who serves as president of the Continuum of Care (CoC-PR502), which brings together organizations and agencies that provide services to people experiencing homelessness. “Developers need to create strategies to build affordable housing, not only for high-value houses, as is happening due to high construction costs. Right now, no one is interested in rehabilitating buildings that could become affordable housing options with a voucher.

“Before imposing a criminal penalty on individuals who are at their most vulnerable, there should be a comprehensive program between the government, the private sector, and nonprofit organizations that solve the housing inventory problem. Homeless encampments can be sensitively closed by rehabilitating vacant buildings or structures into affordable housing. In reality, this is going to cost much less than criminalizing homeless people, putting them in jail just for committing the crime of not being able to afford a house.”

There are some 5,000 homeless people in Puerto Rico. In the most recent count, about 52% of homeless people were found to be homeless for the first time for economic reasons.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, in December 2023 there were 256,000 homeless people in the United States, where homelessness increased 12% between 2022 and 2023.

In a hearing Monday on the Grants Pass case before the Supreme Court, Puerto Rican Justice Sonia Sotomayor stated about the Oregon ordinance that “the true objective of that law is to make homeless people leave the city.”

She said she has learned that conservative judges favor maintaining the Grants Pass local bans on the grounds of public health and safety in common park spaces and sidewalks. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, meanwhile, stated her opposition to the bans: “It is cruel and unusual to punish people for acts that constitute basic human needs such as sleep.”

The group of homeless people who challenged the ordinances say they are unconstitutional because they are on the streets involuntarily, since there are no beds available in shelters. They claimed the city cannot punish them without first offering them a place to sleep.

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