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Despite pledge, L.A. has yet to declare state of emergency on homeless crisis

Seven weeks after city leaders announced they would seek a formal declaration to jump on the homeless crisis, there is no state of emergency in Los Angeles. The city’s pledge to declare one remains bottled up by legal questions, and problems with federal funding could blunt the measure’s impact.

Los Angeles’ Sept. 22 announcement triggered national attention, and the city has repeatedly and erroneously been cited as having called a state of emergency. The state of Hawaii and the cities of Portland, Ore., and Seattle followed Los Angeles’ lead in announcing homelessness emergency declarations, but theirs took effect.

Critics said the city can fight homelessness without a declaration, and called the delay a mark of the halting and confused tactics that have hobbled the city’s response to the growing problem.

“It was just political rhetoric,” Mark Ryavec, president of the Venice Stakeholders Assn., said of the state of emergency announcement.

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“Real leaders don’t declare emergencies and then spend 50 days just talking about what might be done,” said Gary Blasi, a retired law professor and homelessness researcher now litigating poverty issues with Public Counsel’s Opportunity Under Law program.

City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, co-chairman of the homelessness and and poverty committee, said the city is taking the time to do it right.

“The city is in the midst of preparing a strategic plan, one that should consider all touch points and interactions with the homeless, provide for an integrated approach to serving the population, and have implementation strategies for storage, short- and long-term housing, supportive services, extensive outreach and police training,” he said in a written statement. The city is working to coordinate with Los Angeles County, which is developing its own homelessness strategy. Both plans are expected to be issued early next year.

A spokeswoman for Mayor Eric Garcetti noted the declaration lay with the council, and said the delay was part of the normal legislative process. Councilman Jose Huizar, the other homelessness committee co-chairman, said the group is on target to deliver its plan to end homelessness in January.

“Whether or not that is something we can do to receive local, state or federal assistance, I believe the benefit of a declaration is that the City of Los Angeles and its leaders are treating homelessness with the seriousness it deserves and that there now exists the political will to do something about it,” Huizar said in a written statement. City Atty. Mike Feuer through his spokesman, Rob Wilcox, said his office will submit a report on the state of emergency to the council Friday.

The emergency declaration is a formal legal process that officials believe could lift land use and other restrictions so the city can open temporary shelters, storage facilities, showers, safe parking lots and bathrooms at public and private facilities including churches.

Garcetti and seven City Council members also said they would devote up to $100 million a year to get the city’s estimated 26,000 homeless people off the streets. The mayor freed up $13 million for short-term rental assistance for homeless veterans and other aid.

But the council so far has put off identifying potentially controversial sites for projects, or allocating new money, beyond extending the dates for the city’s annual winter shelters, which typically serve 9,000 people. Feuer’s office advised the homelessness committee it would be difficult to craft a measure until the council settles on dates and projects.

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The office also said the emergency declaration on its own is unlikely to bring in new state or federal funding. While the council deliberates, potential problems have arisen with the area’s federal homeless services funding. As much as $28 million of the city and county’s $108 million application for federal homelessness funding is in jeopardy because of the officials’ tardy response to the growth of homelessness, and council actions to suppress homeless camps.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is penalizing jurisdictions on their funding applications for failing to reduce their homeless populations. Los Angeles County saw a 12% rise in homelessness from 2013 to 2015, and a 15% hike over the previous two-year period.

Applications also will be scored on how well they reduced criminalization of homelessness, and again, Los Angeles could fare badly. A controversial city ordinance enacted in July to crack down on homeless encampments has been widely denounced as criminalizing homeless people, and federal prosecutors have condemned another city enforcement measure as unconstitutional.

“The (homeless) count and criminalization issues could negatively impact the review of our overall submission, given the highly competitive bidding anticipated...across the nation for this funding,” said Naomi Goldman, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

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Wilcox, Feuer’s spokesman, said he has talked to the Department of Justice about public safety and homelessness. Modifications to soften the encampment ordinance will be on the City Council agenda Tuesday.

The homelessness and poverty committee is scheduled to take up appointing a czar to oversee homelessness initiatives on Friday.

gale.holland@latimes.com


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