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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Vargas Vidot files bill to set public policy on homelessness

By John McPhaul

In a new attempt to establish public policy in favor of the homeless in Puerto Rico, independent Sen. José Vargas Vidot filed Senate Bill 778 on Thursday to formulate a state plan for dealing with homelessness.

The goal of the measure is to develop a systemic response to eradicate homelessness and ensure that the phenomenon is prevented whenever possible or that it is a rare, brief and nonrecurring experience, the senator said in a press release.

According to the measure, multiple deficiencies exist in the treatment and services that homeless people receive at the state and municipal levels. In fact, the government does not even have accurate statistics on the number of homeless people in Puerto Rico, since the counts that are done every two years are only done to comply with federal requirements and are based on models that do not conform to the realities of that population on the island.

For the past four years, the independent senator’s office has led efforts to learn what the needs of homeless people are and what obstacles prevent homelessness from being eradicated. Through legislative research, lack of coordination of public services, complicated bureaucratic processes, and poor counts were identified as the main barriers to a systemic response to curb homelessness, Vargas Vidot said.

Senate Bill 778 addresses those issues by creating the Office of Homeless Support when it becomes law. It would be an entity independent of the central government, and would be responsible for coordinating and supervising the management of services, and for preserving the rights of the homeless population.

In addition, the office would carry out public policy planning functions in favor of the homeless, for which reason it must have the participation of the various sectors that address homelessness in Puerto Rico. The proposed office would be in charge of establishing and implementing the plan to address homelessness, whose main pillars would be prevention, sensitization and awareness, access to government services, health services, housing and employment.

The Homeless Population Support Office would initially operate with a minimum of $250,000 per fiscal year, currently allocated to the Multisectoral Council in Support of the Homeless Population, which would be dissolved by the proposed law.

To ensure the continuity of the proposed office and the integrity of services to the homeless, the office would become the recipient of all federal funds and benefits from other programs that allocate resources to the island government to serve the homeless population.

Vargas Vidot stressed that funds received directly by the organizations will not be disrupted. However, those organizations that do receive funds or proposals to serve the homeless population through government agencies, after the proposed legislation becomes law would receive them from the office so that they all comply with the plan and with common objectives for eradicating homelessness, the legislation says. Such a transition would be done in an orderly manner and without affecting sources of federal funds.

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