Homelessness has been a humanitarian crisis in the state of California for some time now, as the number of homeless people keeps growing along with their visibility on sidewalks, in riverbeds, in parks.
Casting about for solutions, some officials in L.A. County — including Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who co-chairs a state task force on homelessness, and L.A. City Councilman Joe Buscaino — are calling on California Gov. Gavin Newsom to declare a state of emergency on homelessness.
But that’s not a solution. It’s a press release.
Sure, there was a time only a few years ago when we would have welcomed an emergency declaration from anyone — the city of L.A., the county, the state. The most we got were local declarations of a shelter crisis, which let the city and county bypass some regulations in putting up shelters and gave them more flexibility when spending state homelessness funds.
Things are different now. The city of Los Angeles has committed $1.2 billion for housing for homeless and very low-income people through Proposition HHH, and more than 8,000 new units should be available in the next several years. The county of Los Angeles will have several billion dollars to spend over a decade on services and rental assistance through Measure H. The task force on homelessness that Newsom created is working on ways to get more people into housing and treatment.
Meanwhile, there is more state money than ever to address the problem. The current state budget provides $1 billion for projects to address homelessness projects, and a big chunk of that is coming to Los Angeles city and county. There also are state tax credits and affordable housing loans. More state aid would of course be welcome, but an emergency declaration wouldn’t automatically deliver it.
The governor just signed a bill that exempts new homeless housing and shelter projects in the city of Los Angeles from California Environmental Quality Act lawsuits, potentially accelerating their construction. There are similar CEQA exemptions for other jurisdictions in the state.
And anyone who thinks declaring a state emergency will allow us to tap into a font of federal funds is dreaming. For starters, federal emergency aid for homeless services is obtained by cities and counties, not the state. Besides, the Trump administration already turned down a request from Newsom for more housing vouchers for homeless people.
Ridley-Thomas and Buscaino contend that a state of emergency declaration would cut through time-consuming local bureaucracy. Ridley-Thomas says a declaration could suspend a law that prevents indefinite involuntary commitments, giving officials some leverage over severely mentally ill homeless people who refuse treatment. And, he says, it could mobilize National Guard personnel to do things like operating mobile showers.
There’s no question that Los Angeles needs more showers (and bathrooms) for homeless people and less bureaucracy when it comes to approving housing and shelters. But those are problems for local officials to fix. It’s up to the city to speed up its permitting and regulating process. The mayor’s office says it’s doing so, but if the process continues to drag (and we sure hear a lot of complaints about the pace), then the mayor’s office still has work to do on that. For his part, Newsom seems mystified about what a state of emergency could do that he hasn’t done already.
A declaration of a state of emergency looks more like political posturing than anything else. And that, we know for sure, will not fix our homelessness crisis.
Getting housing and shelter and even bathrooms in place for homeless people in Los Angeles is challenging. But the governor is not a fairy godmother, and a declaration that homelessness is an emergency is not a magic wand that can be waved to make the problems go away. Ridley-Thomas, Buscaino and their colleagues have to stop making gestures — we have seen too many of those already — and do the politically difficult work of providing more housing, addressing the public health issues related to homelessness and standing up to constituents who would block housing or shelter projects for NIMBY reasons.
And, frankly, we don’t want the civil rights of anyone, including homeless people, suspended wholesale.
A declaration of emergency may seem like a bravura move, but it’s not. It’s just a statement of the obvious — that homelessness is an urgent issue. It’s up to local officials to do a better job delivering housing and shelter and services.