Last week, two American cities took a mostly unprecedented step: they declared that the situation facing their homeless populations constitutes a state of emergency. The Los Angeles city council declared a homeless state of emergency on September 22; the next day, the mayor of Portland, Oregon asked his city council to vote on whether they should do the same.
With thousands homeless across the country, advocates are greeting the emergencies as a good sign.
“I think the declarations are right,” said Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. “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.”
It hearkens back, in fact, to the way the country first dealt with mass homelessness, which only became the crisis it is today in the 1980s. Congress passed the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act in 1987, which called for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, to distribute emergency food and shelter. “That was a time when homelessness really was viewed more as an emergency,” Foscarinis said.
Now two West Coast cities have adopted the language of emergency once more.
Los Angeles: 17,700 Homeless
The Los Angeles city council declared a homeless state of emergency at the same time that it introduced a motion to spend $100 million in one-time funding for services. Mayor Eric Garcetti (D) has also called for an additional $13 million in short-term funding, $10 million of which will go to housing subsidies for veterans and those who are not chronically homeless, and for the city to spend $100 million annually. 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.
In Los Angeles, a few factors have collided to sharply decrease the amount of housing available. The city is experiencing a huge real estate boom, but with it rents are increasing sharply. Rent on an average two-bedroom apartment is 5 percent higher than a year ago. At the same time, one of the few sources of money the city used to build affordable housing, state redevelopment agencies, were eliminated by the governor in 2011, drying up nearly all funds for creating new units.
There is also less shelter available than in some cities, such as New York, where there is a legal right to shelter. And the shelters that do exist are often run by religious groups. “There’s a lot of chronically homeless people who would prefer to try to fend for themselves than come into some of the shelters that exist here,” explained Jerry Jones, director of public policy at the Inner City Law Center, an organization focused on homelessness in Los Angeles.
These factors have combined to create a big increase in the number of homeless people living on the streets and in encampments. There were about 17,700 people going unsheltered in the city at the last count, up from less than 15,000 in 2013. The crisis is acute enough that Garcetti had to back out of a pledge to end veteran homelessness by the end of this year, pushing the deadline into 2016.
“For decades, there’s been this willingness to abide people living in absolute destitution,” Jones said of the city. But “people are reacting with a new sense of urgency about the crisis because there are so many more homeless people out there.”
The state of emergency might be the first step in turning the situation around, but it will depend on the details. “This could be a game-changer,” he said. “One hundred million can do a lot of good and makes a big difference when you’re spending it than when you’re not.” Still, he is waiting to see where the money actually goes. “It makes a big difference how the money is targeted, what it’s spent on… You can spend a lot of money on short-term emergency half-measures that don’t really solve the problem.”
Portland, Oregon: 3,800 Homeless
The state of emergency will look slightly different in Portland if it is indeed passed by the city council. So far there hasn’t been talk of extra funding; instead it would allow the city to waive zoning codes and land-use restrictions to more quickly create new shelter space or affordable housing, as well as to convert buildings the city already owns into shelters.
But the city is facing many of the same challenges as Los Angeles. It’s seeing an influx of residents while the vacancy rate remains at a low 3 percent. That has been pushing rents up at a 20 percent rate over the last five years, the sixth-highest rate in the country.
Meanwhile, the city doesn’t have rent control or inclusionary zoning laws that would require developers to build affordable housing alongside other development. “We have no way to control the prices of our rents,” said Brandi Tuck, executive director of Portland Homeless Family Solutions. These are “tools in our toolbox that are missing.”
The result has been 3,800 homeless people, 1,887 of whom don’t have shelter. While the numbers haven’t increased significantly since the last count in 2013, as Mayor Charlie Hales (D) noted in announcing the state of emergency, “And yet we had spent millions of dollars and countless staff time.” Even without a huge increase in the raw numbers, Tuck says her organization has experienced a big increase in need. She’s been with the organization for ten years, yet said, “We have more calls than we have ever had…. There’s just a tremendous demand.”
While Tuck thinks declaring a state of emergency is helpful, she also wants to see it followed up with more long-term action, such as building affordable housing units, changing policies to tamp down on rent increases, and investing funding more along the lines of what Los Angeles is preparing to spend. “I think the mayor needs to capitalize and put a lot of pressure on the state, city, and county to make policy changes right now,” she said.
Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, agrees that simply getting the homeless into shelters won’t end the emergency in any city. “The answer is to have shelter that can get people into housing,” she said.
What no one wants to see is a crack down on the homeless population, which has been the immediate response to a swell in homeless populations in cities across the country. A recent report found that California cities have enacted 500 laws aimed at criminalizing things like standing or sleeping in public or begging and panhandling. While that’s a much higher rate than cities in other states, there has been an uptick in nearly every kind of anti-homeless ordinance across the country over the last five years. That kind of response can be costly and won’t get at the root causes of homeless emergencies like those in Los Angeles and Portland.
On the other hand, there is wide consensus as to what does reduce homelessness: getting people into housing. That’s why declaring a state of emergency could prove so useful. “A lot of the problem with homelessness is creating the political will to address it,” Foscarinis pointed out. “It’s not something that we don’t know the solution to. It’s just creating the will to actually do something, to put those solutions into place and to fund them.”
And it’s possible this will become a more common tool cities use in their fight against homelessness. “I think all cities should feel this urgency,” she said. “Homelessness is a crisis nationally.”