Homelessness crisis requires different kind of action, Fortunato says

As the ranking member on the Senate’s housing committee, state Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn has been looking at innovative ways to address the state’s affordable housing and homelessness crisis.

Despite billions of dollars being spent on the problem, homelessness and housing insecurity continue to rise. In a recent hearing on Fortunato’s SHELTER Act, advocates for the “homelessness industrial complex” came out of the woodwork to say why his approach wouldn’t work but offered few solutions aside from the same policies that have left countless people to languish on the streets.

“The recent court decision in Martin v. Boise basically says you cannot remove people from the streets if they do not have a place to go and this bill solves that problem,” said Fortunato. “My proposal provides the homeless on our streets security and services so that we can help them work their way out of homelessness. They can focus on recovery knowing that they and their possessions will be safe while they’re accessing treatments or finding employment. Unless we provide drug and alcohol treatment, we are not breaking the cycle.”

Fortunato offered an amended version of Senate Bill 5107  that removes criminal penalties for camping in public spaces. Under his legislation, cities and counties with a population of at least 50,000 must have an emergency overnight shelter to accommodate the unsheltered homeless equal to the last point-in-time count.

“I’ve worked to improve this legislation, but I’m open to suggestions to make it even better. However, simply saying ‘No’ without addressing the underlying problem for taxpayers and the homeless is unacceptable,” Fortunato said. “I’m working to ensure that families can safely take their kids to parks without finding needles all over the ground by providing a safe and secure place for the homeless to go. To me, it is not compassionate to let people sleep in cardboard boxes, on the side of roads or in public parks. We have to do something different.”

In addition, Fortunato’s bill stipulates that the sites must provide treatment for substance abuse as well as mental health and employment counseling. It would prohibit use of alcohol or other unprescribed drugs and require a police presence for security.

“Much of the opposition to this proposal focused on the requirement for treatment,” Fortunato added, “but I cannot take taxpayer money to fund someone’s continued substance abuse that could be contributing to their struggle with homelessness.”