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States of Emergency – or Not

Homeless  AmericanaA state and some cities have declared a state of emergency. Traditionally, such a designation would come after a natural disaster, but this time, the reason is homelessness. It doesn’t mean they get federal money— not unless the federal government itself declared the emergency—but the move does enable the release of local funds and the loosening of rules. For instance, permits for building affordable housing can be issued more quickly—although why this process could not have been expedited all along is a mystery. For PewTrusts.org, Rebecca Beitsch wrote:

Many cities and states, even those that have declared states of emergency, are investing more in long-term affordable housing, whether by constructing new housing or spending more money on existing programs to help people stay in private housing. Those programs offer various types of affordable housing and rapid rehousing, including subsidized units, security deposit assistance and permanent supportive housing. In many cases, tenants pay 30 percent of their income in rent and may even be matched with nearby caseworkers who help them stay in housing and connect to services.

Regarding Hawaii, ThinkProgress.com spun the situation this way: “After Destroying Homeless Camps, Hawaii Declares State of Emergency on Homelessness.” The authorities in Hawaii and elsewhere are notorious for not only raiding camps, but destroying the possessions of people just trying to live.

In October, when the proclamation was made, the state’s 1.4 million people included at least 5,000 people experiencing homelessness, with an estimated 2,000 of them unsheltered. To complicate the situation, Hawaii’s homeless seem particularly reluctant to go into shelters. Nevertheless, the governor’s decision released $1.3 million from the state’s general fund and was said to provide more shelter options for families that want to remain united.

States of Emergency in Northwest Cities

Portland plans to do more than just throw money at the problem. There is talk of adjusting restrictive land-use and zoning rules, which appear to have delayed the deployment of approximately $60 million that was already available from the federal government under other affordable housing programs. Beitsch reports that developers who take part in those building projects “must keep rent at an affordable level for 60 years before charging market rates,” and what entrepreneur wants to sign off on that?

Portland also looks forward to an additional $1 million per year that will be used for affordable housing, with the revenue coming from tax on Airbnb facilities.

In Seattle, 3,000 public school children are known to be homeless, and 45 impoverished people have died in the streets during the past year. The sale of some city property should bring in more than $5 million and King County is kicking in $2 million.

At the very least, Seattle plans to add 150 shelter beds, but there is talk of attacking the root causes of chronic homelessness by providing more PTSD counselors for veterans and more addiction treatment options. The city also plans to press for federal funding via FEMA or any other possible agency.

 L.A. Fails to Address Homelessness

Los Angeles is estimated to have nearly 18,000 unsheltered homeless people and again, as in Hawaii, many find life on the streets more bearable than the shelters, particularly if they are administered by religious organizations. Los Angeles plans to spend at least $100 million in the coming year and journalist Bruce Covert says of Mayor Eric Garcetti:

He also called for shelters to stay open 24 hours a day during the rainy season, for winter shelter availability to be extended by two months, and for an increase in access to storage, bathrooms, showers, laundry, and other services.

But more than two months after the idea of declaring a state of emergency was floated, Los Angeles has not yet actually acted on its publicized intention. Some call this stalling; others call it judicious consideration of all the possible remedies. Is the City Council dragging its feet, or are all parties doing their best to plan wisely? Meanwhile, people experiencing homelessness in L.A. are facing more numerous and tougher ordinances than ever before, amounting to the criminalization of homelessness.

Only two weeks ago, Gary Blasi wrote for the LA Times:

Last week, the City Council decided to make it a crime for a homeless person to refuse to break down a tent on a sidewalk at 6 a.m., or to put the same tent up before 9 p.m., even in a pouring rain. If a federal judge does not block that rule, the mayor could [do so]…The mayor could open unused city buildings or enter into short-term leases for private buildings to provide shelter for the homeless to sleep and keep some of their belongings…The mayor could help people stay alive in the shelters they have made for themselves…City agencies could provide pallets or other means of getting them off the ground, and tents and tarps that do not leak in a heavy storm.

Supposedly, the talk of emergency declaration draws attention to the problem and inspires a sense of urgency which will help to obtain resources and lubricate a creaky bureaucracy. So, talk, talk, talk—and then, nothing. Is it any wonder that many critics hear just another variation on the same old political bloviation? But Maria Foscarinis of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty sees hope in the various actions, telling Bruce Covert:

I think the declarations are right. Declaring that homelessness is an emergency is calling a crisis by its rightful name…I think it’s totally appropriate and very important to recognize it as such, and in fact it’s long overdue.


Source: “Cities, States Turn To Emergency Declarations To Tackle Homeless Crisis,” pewtrusts.org, 11/11/15
Source: “After Destroying Homeless Camps, Hawaii Declares State Of Emergency On
Homelessness,” ThinkProgress.org, 10/19/15
Source: “Murray: Loss of life warrants homeless emergency declaration,” MyNorthwest.com, 11/03/15
Source: “The Situation Facing Los Angeles And Portland Homeless Populations Is An
Emergency,” ThinkProgress.org, 09/30/15
Source: “Preparing to declare a ‘local emergency’ could save LA’s homeless people when El Niño rains hit,” LATimes.com, 11/23/15
Image by Tom Fortunato