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Northwoods homeless shelter directors react to new SCOTUS decision allowing cities to punish people sleeping outside

In their biggest ruling on homelessness in decades, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that cities can prohibit homeless people from using pillows, blankets, or cardboard boxes for protection while sleeping outside within city limits.

Homelessness is a pervasive issue in the Northwoods.

William’s House of Hope is a new organization based in Antigo that’s opening a physical shelter in mid-October.

Since forming in March, they’ve already helped over 94 individuals in Langlade County.

Local advocates emphasize that homelessness doesn’t always look like living in a tent. Many times, people are technically homeless but able to stay off the streets by couch-surfing, spending a week with family, then a week with friends, for example.

Nicole Barron, President of William’s House of Hope, says she believes that the Supreme Court’s decision is flawed.

She said that the ruling punishes poverty instead of conduct.

Barron called the decision a setback and said that practically, it’s ineffective.

“It doesn't address the root causes. So homelessness itself stems from complex issues, like lack of affordable housing, mental health, joblessness, and then if someone can't afford housing, and then you add fines and citations, how is that going to solve the problem? It's just going to push them further into debt, and it's not setting them up for success,” she explained.

She said that criminalizing sleeping outdoors penalizes people for their circumstances, not their choices and that it’s inhumane.

“Criminalization doesn't eliminate homelessness, it burdens the courts, law enforcement, and it creates a cycle. So it keeps them in the system,” she said.

Both Barron and the Executive Director of the Northwoods Alliance for Temporary Housing, Abbey Dall Lukowski, are concerned that the change will overburden a court and criminal justice system that is already bogged down.

Dall Lukowski said that she’s concerned that the prison system, which already struggles to maintain a labor force of guards and staff, will become even more overcrowded.

“I think, in some respects, the recent ruling was trying to recognize what that meant, for that community at large and their individual, local governments and state governments,” said Dall Lukowksi.

However, she said that the decision will apply negative consequences to being homeless without solving bigger systemic root causes of the issue.

“Having worked in this system for well over 25 years, it's gonna just create another issue at hand,” she said.

Dall Lukowski says that around half of the people she works with lost their housing arrangement because rent and other expenses went up, but their income didn’t. At William’s House of Hope, Barron sees much the same.

“We need to invest in creating more affordable housing units, to give people a pathway out of homelessness, we need those support services. So we need to expand access to mental health care, addiction treatment, job training, and addressing those underlying causes,” said Barron.

She says she sees it as a setback, but one that doesn’t have to be the end all, and that we can invest in different solutions that lead to lasting change.

Both leaders agreed that we need more local options for homeless folks and hope that the decision will encourage community activism.

While the Supreme Court upheld the Grants Pass ordinance, the corporation counsels for both Oneida County and Langlade County said that they are not aware of any local county-wide ordinance against sleeping outside.

Hannah Davis-Reid is a WXPR Reporter.
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