Local governments in the Los Angeles area declared a state of emergency on homelessness this year to spur action and marshal resources. But there are drawbacks to applying an emergency label to this issue.
As her first official act as the mayor of Los Angeles, Karen Bass declared a state of emergency over homelessness. She was later joined by the mayors of neighboring Long Beach, Santa Monica and Culver City, and the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.
Following these five declarations, the supervisors also announced the largest-ever investment in the county’s homeless response: $609 million dollars over the next fiscal year. In May, the L.A. City Council approved a record $1.3 billion for homelessness programs.
For the 10 million people living in L.A. County, home to the worst of the state’s homelessness crisis, this feels like a turning point – one that all of California can get behind.
We witnessed how emergency declarations escalated the response during the pandemic when FEMA covered the cost of filling motels and hotels with vulnerable unhoused people, and the state allocated substantial funding for housing and emergency services.
Just as the pandemic sparked action, these declarations can unlock resources at a moment when everyone is eager for change.
But there are drawbacks to applying an emergency label to homelessness. For one, it gives the impression that homelessness is a natural phenomenon like an earthquake rather than the result of policies that should not be repeated.
It can also imply a need for temporary solutions and short-term funding. A one-time infusion of cash can’t overcome a systemic failure that is decades in the making. We demand long-term accountability from our homeless service providers but fail to make the long-term financial commitment they need to budget, plan and build on their successes.
The crisis frame can also push resources toward temporary shelters and away from permanent housing. That would be a mistake, since permanent housing has proven to be the most effective intervention. According to a recent report, 92% of supportive housing residents stay housed after six months.
Shelters certainly have a role to play, but they shouldn’t distract us from achieving true success.
These emergency declarations are a phenomenal way to electrify our stalled approach to homelessness, but they will ultimately fail if we do not think in terms of permanent change. That means permanent funding for service providers, permanent homes for people living on the streets, and permanent reform to our tangled web of interconnected bureaucracies.
To start with, creating a more collaborative way for local governments to work together could improve how quickly housing is permitted and services are delivered. This approach has succeeded elsewhere: Houston made a 60% reduction in homelessness in four years by aligning all levels of government and the civic community on a single plan of action.
That level of collaboration would be a paradigm shift in sprawling L.A. County, where a hundred different quarterbacks call their own plays and then look for someone to blame for system failings. If we succeed here, as they have in Houston, other California cities could follow.
History has shown us that urgency cannot be taken for granted. Indeed, the city of Los Angeles’ declaration is scheduled to expire on Monday. Without real structural change, we will find ourselves where we started before these emergencies were declared, with a fragmented and fitful approach to our most difficult challenge.
In fairness, our actions so far have laid a critical foundation. It’s a testament to the many individuals working to solve homelessness that over the last five years: 84,000 unhoused people in L.A. County moved into permanent housing. Thanks also to investments by taxpayers and philanthropy, L.A. is rehousing more people every year than any other large city in California.
Significant progress has been made, but we cannot expect Californians to see it that way when the scale of homelessness remains enormous.
Homelessness is both an emergency and an ongoing challenge. It’s good to hear our leaders recognize it. Let’s take this energy and get to work creating a lasting model for change that can inspire cities and counties across the state.