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From Oregon to N.J., policymakers’ genius plan to solve homelessness is to say, ‘Go somewhere else’


From Oregon to N.J., policymakers’ genius plan to solve homelessness is to say, ‘Go somewhere else’

Apr 23, 2024 | 11:56 am ET
By Terrence T. McDonald
Policymakers from Oregon to New Jersey hope to solve homelessness by saying, ‘Go somewhere else’
A makeshift campsite for people experiencing homelessness in Oregon, a state at the center of a U.S. Supreme Court that could expand how towns target people without homes. (Ben Botkin/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

A comment from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has been rattling around my brain since I heard it Monday morning.

The nation’s high court was hearing a case centered around an Oregon city’s ordinance restricting when people can sleep outdoors, an attempt to shoo away the city’s unhoused population. Sotomayor asked the city’s attorney what would happen if towns nationwide pass laws barring people with no homes from sleeping in public places.

“Where do we put them if every city, every village, every town lacks compassion and passes a law identical to this? Where are they supposed to sleep? Are they supposed to kill themselves not sleeping?” Sotomayor asked.

A blunt but effective way to get at the heart of this issue. The nation has a lot of people who have no homes. What are they supposed to do if every town’s policy solution for this problem is to make it impossible for them to exist?

Monday’s hearing centered around an ordinance from the city of Grants Pass, nearly 3,000 miles away from New Jersey, but a ruling in the city’s favor would have broad implications nationwide. It would, I fear, give leaders here a license to try to make the issue of homelessness invisible rather than try to solve it.

It’s not like they haven’t tried.

Middle Township last year approved a ban on sleeping in tents. Newark said in 2021 that anyone who gives food to the homeless must get the city’s OK first. And Paterson recently unveiled a plan to restrict anyone from distributing “resources” in public — food, clothes, tents, basically anything.

No doubt there are places in New Jersey, like Grants Pass, Oregon, that see a lot of homelessness. Newark and Paterson had the most unhoused people by far in their respective counties last year, per an annual count. But does anyone running these cities think passing laws that bar them from living in tents or limit how much people can give them will do anything to make a homeless person not homeless? It won’t. And that’s what Sotomayor was getting at Monday.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh, on the other end of the political spectrum, hit at this issue, too. Sotomayor had previously noted that the Gospel Rescue Mission shelter in Grants Pass has fewer than 100 beds, while the Grants Pass homeless count is around 600.

“If there’s a mismatch between the number of beds available in shelters, even including Gospel Rescue, and the number of homeless people, there are going to be a certain number of people who — there’s nowhere to go,” Kavanaugh said.

Theane Evangelis, the attorney representing Grants Pass, responded, “That — that is a difficult policy question.”

“How does this law deal, help with that policy question?” Kavanaugh asked her.

“So it encourages people to accept alternatives when they come up so that fewer people end up camping,” Evangelis said.

Yes, encourages them by fining them and threatening them with jail time. But don’t worry, Evangelis noted, the fines are “low level” and the jail times are “very short.”

The American Civil Liberties Union submitted a brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in support of the unhoused people whose lawsuit against Grants Pass led to Monday’s hearing. I spoke to Jim Sullivan, deputy policy director at the group’s New Jersey chapter, about efforts here to target homelessness.

Sullivan told me he is “pretty horrified” by the Paterson plan, an ordinance that would have restricted when organizations can distribute resources — “perishable or nonperishable goods, items, clothes, tents, chattel and/or other tangible materials” — without city approval.

“It would further criminalize poverty, which serves no community members,” Sullivan said.

From Oregon to N.J., policymakers’ genius plan to solve homelessness is to say, ‘Go somewhere else’
Zellie Thomas of Black Lives Matter Paterson speaks at a rally outside Paterson City Hall on April 9, 2024, before the city’s council decided not to vote on an ordinance that would have restricted when groups can give aid to homeless and others. (Photo by New Jersey Monitor)

Paterson’s council wisely postponed a vote on the ordinance after seeing the angry reaction it elicited from mutual aid groups and others in Paterson and elsewhere. Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh has said the move was an attempt to deal with the problem of trash left behind when groups hand out food and more to people in need. Critics like Justis Reins, a Paterson woman I spoke to recently outside Paterson City Hall, scoff at the mayor’s justification.

“They’re not worried about trash on the streets. Look at all the trash on the streets here!” she said.

Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter, a Democrat who lives in and represents Paterson, is less critical of the Paterson ordinance. It merely requires organizations giving out food to get a permit in advance so there’s some order to the process, Sumter told me.

“It puts the group on notice to, one, clean up after themselves when they’re gathering and be respectful of the neighborhoods. It’s actually well written,” she said.

A nice thought, but count me in Sullivan’s camp that the Paterson ordinance, if resurrected, would place unnecessary hurdles in front of groups attempting to give aid to those least fortunate. Like Newark’s restriction on giving food to people without homes, or Middle Township’s ban on living in tents, it’s not a policy solution to homelessness — it’s a push to send people without homes elsewhere, to be some other town’s problem.

Lily Morgan, the Republican council president in Grants Pass in 2013, gave the game away at a public meeting that March about the city’s homelessness problem.

 “The point is to make it uncomfortable enough for them in our city so they will want to move on down the road,” she said.