News, Policies, & Trends Opinion

Is LA’s Homelessness a State of Crisis or State of Emergency?

By | Dec 10, 2015

Imagine 44,000 people losing their homes because of a series of tornadoes in the Midwest, or a devastating hurricane in the South, or sweeping wildfires in the West. The disruption of life, property, and the local economy would cause any public official to declare an emergency.

And, rightfully so.

The State of Oklahoma recently declared such an emergency due to inclement weather. Many states and the federal government declared an emergency after Hurricane Sandy slammed through the eastern seaboard, which caused hundreds of deaths and billions of dollars worth of destruction. In the states of New York and New Jersey alone, 650,000 homes were destroyed.

Mayors, governors, and even the president rightfully called on the government to provide much needed assistance to those affected.

So, when the Los Angeles region recently finished its federally-mandated homeless census, and discovered that homelessness had increased, local officials took to the media and declared a state of emergency.

Those of us who have been on the front lines of addressing homelessness for decades cheered over the public’s admission that homelessness has greatly affected our community. Critics, however, thought this statement was more of a public relations stunt than a genuine commitment toward ending homelessness.

Two months after the Los Angeles press conference, the “state of emergency” declaration has been bogged down in legal questions, and the declaration has now become an “intent to declare”, not a formal declaration.

With most declarations of emergencies, we see government officials responding quickly and massively, providing increased funding, mobilization of personnel, and setting up temporary shelter.

But not so, in Los Angeles.

Instead, we are bogged down by legal questions on whether our city can even declare an emergency; bogged down by creating master plans on how to assist LA–which will take at least six months to create, and many more months to implement; and bogged down by working out how to actually help.

Such a response doesn’t sound like a “state of emergency” to me.

This response is more like leadership or management by “committee,” where consensus, political correctness, and thorough planning trumps an emergency response.

I wonder how the 650,000 people in New York and New Jersey who lost their homes during Hurricane Sandy would have responded if government officials had told them to wait a half a year, while they figure out a plan to help them?

But here in Los Angeles, where 44,000 of our neighbors have lost homes and live on our streets, the political power of these people we call “homeless” is so weak that it is okay for our community to put on hold any idea of a “state of emergency.”

Perhaps the original press conference was designed to soothe the fury of community members who have angrily complained to local officials about “those homeless people” who have occupied their neighborhoods?

Perhaps the delay of response is because some people actually blame homeless people for their predicament. “If only they got jobs,” they say. We would never say such a thing to someone who lost their home because of a hurricane.

Most people close to the work of addressing homelessness understand that both the resources needed to house 44,000 people and the projection of people who will become homeless in the future is significantly more than what many political and community leaders are willing to pay for.

“Yet, other jurisdictions in America, like the entire state of Hawaii, have declared states of emergency for homelessness. And in the state of Hawaii the homeless population is only 16% of the homeless population in Los Angeles. This action means speeding up the process of building new temporary and permanent housing, and increasing resources.”

It seems to me that homelessness in Los Angeles is considered by our public leaders as more of a crisis, rather than an emergency that requires immediate attention.