Homelessness on unsteady ground

Makeshift beds under the highway in the north end of Hartford.

Jose Vega

Homelessness on unsteady ground

Occasionally, and perhaps even more frequently nowadays, we are forced to see the big picture. This happened a week or so ago, when the ground shook beneath us, sending many straight to Google, updating our knowledge of tectonic plates, the Richter scale and appropriate earthquake crisis response. It re-centered us, understanding that our day-to-day always relies on a greater stability, one which we are often denied.

I find the same to be true in our housing crisis. Currently, at a time in which homelessness has increased by 14% since 2021 in Connecticut and nearly 1,000 people are sleeping outside because our homeless response system does not have a bed, a chair or even standing room in a warming center or shelter to offer them, a case currently before the Supreme Court has the ability to set us back decades in the work to eradicate unsheltered homelessness and solve all forms of homelessness.

On Monday, April 22, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case of City of Grants Pass, Oregon v. Johnson, the most significant Supreme Court case about the rights of people experiencing homelessness in decades.

In this case, the Supreme Court will determine whether a local government can arrest or fine people for sleeping outside when adequate shelter is not available. The rights of people experiencing homelessness have been protected under the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment (Martin v. Boise) since 2009. Our hope is that the Supreme Court will uphold the decision of lower courts and retain the rights of unhoused Americans.

However, if the alternative happens and the decision of the lower court is overturned, the case has the potential to make homelessness worse in our local communities.

To be clear, we all should be held accountable for any known and intentional violation of the law; however, expanding the definition of criminal activity to include deep poverty and homelessness does more damage to a community at-large than good.

Last year, the number of people that became homeless for the first time rose by 25% nationally. This is directly attributable to the lack of housing options for households at all income levels.

State research on just how many homes are needed in Connecticut to match the demand tallies the affordable housing shortage at 169,400 units for low-income residents and 101,600 homes for middle-income residents. Are the two out of three households who cannot live in a unit they can afford criminals? Certainly not.

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, and employment necessary to exit homelessness. To solve homelessness in our communities, we must invest in proven solutions, like affordable housing and supportive services, at the scale necessary. Decades of research have proven this — and it is my obligation as a homeless response provider to ensure that our community-wide interventions and tax-payer investments are data-driven and solution-oriented.

With oral arguments next week and an expected ruling by the end of June, we have time to support the outcomes we want to see for our state and local communities. Until then, you can also support bills currently in the Connecticut General Assembly that drive us closer to solving homelessness, including H.B. 5178: An Act Concerning Temporary Shelter Units for Persons Experiencing Homelessness Located on Real Property Owned by Religious Organizations and HB 5332: An Act Establishing The Interagency Council on Homelessness. Also, please continue to ask your elected officials on all levels to respond to the homeless and housing needs of our communities with robust and sustained funding.

Although disasters such as earthquakes are unpreventable, homelessness is anything but.

Jennifer Paradis is the Executive Director of Beth-El Center, Inc. in Milford.

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