Elected Officials Declare Homelessness an Emergency

First it was Los Angeles, then it was Portland, and now it’s the state of Hawaii. All three places have declared a state of emergency to address homelessness.

On September 22nd, the Los Angeles city council declared a state of emergency to address homelessness. The city council appropriated $100 million to fund initiatives such as housing subsidies and to keep the city’s winter shelters open for an extra two months. On September 23rd, the mayor of Portland, Oregon, Charlie Hales, announced a state of emergency for housing and homelessness in the city, setting aside a budget of $30 million. Almost a month later, on October 16th, the governor of Hawaii, David Ige, signed an emergency proclamation on the state of its homeless population. By signing this document and assigning $1.3 million for this initiative, Hawaii has become the first state to declare an emergency to address homelessness.

Los Angeles was the first city to declare a state of emergency to address homelessness. In a press conference, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced plans to release nearly $13 million for short term housing initiatives. He added that the bulk of that money will be dedicated to housing homeless veterans.

Skid Row, located in downtown Los Angeles, has often been termed the homeless capital of the country. The Los Angeles city council estimates that approximately 50% of Skid Row’s population lives under the poverty line. For the rest of the country, Skid Row elicits thoughts of trash, tents and shopping carts, but there’s a lot more to it. Against the backdrop of the large skyscrapers of Los Angeles, just a few blocks away, is a neighborhood that is “home” to the homeless. The contrast in the two populations as well as the two drastically different sets of privileges the two groups enjoy is striking.

Connie Llanos, spokesperson for the Los Angeles mayor’s office, stated “An estimated 26,000 Angelenos are homeless today, which is why Los Angeles was the first city in the country to declare a state of emergency on homelessness, a distinction that allows the city to address the crisis with urgency and demonstrating the dire nature of this issue.” She further added, “We have already begun to implement impactful changes, including issuing a directive to free up $13 million in city funds that will pay for continuing housing subsidies and keeping winter shelters open an additional two months and we have called for the earmarking of $100 million for homeless services in the city.”

Shortly after Los Angeles declared a state of emergency, the mayor of Portland declared a state of emergency to tackle homelessness. According to a press release, Mayor Hales wants more money, more shelters, and more homeless people off the streets. The mayor added that the declaration would allow them to work with city owned buildings to convert them into shelters. He envisions working to house all homeless veterans, women, and those who are mentally-ill.

Sara Hottman from the Portland mayor’s office said, “Mayor Hales and Chair Kafoury have committed to an investment of $30 million to address housing and homelessness.” She further added, “$10 million of that budget will come from the county’s funds and $20 million will come from the city’s funds. The mayor’s office will work with a consortium of groups including A Home for Everyone.” Hottman stated that the county will support the city’s efforts by implementing A Home for Everyone’s strategic plan, which includes health agencies under Multnomah County’s jurisdiction. She stated that the responsibilities are divided; the city has the housing bureau and is working to find facilities to create shelters and build affordable housing, while the county’s role is to provide human services, since successful housing placement also requires mental health, addiction, and medical services.

Ron Arp from the Portland Rescue Mission stated, “Regarding the emergency declaration, our perspective is that we’re delighted to see additional focus being placed on the challenges surrounding homelessness. It’s a complex societal, economic, and community challenge, Portland is hardly alone, and it’s going to take more people working closely together over many years to ease the homelessness pressures faced by men, women and children.” Arp further added, “Portland leaders have placed a strong priority on housing over the past decade, so we are particularly appreciative of the expanded focus to include emergency shelter and recovery programs. The latter two are where the nonprofit, Portland Rescue Mission, has focused its energies for the past 65 years.”

Arp mentioned that Portland Rescue Mission is capable of serving more than 350,000 hot, nutritious meals this year. The organization provides emergency beds and transitional support for about 150 men and women and has the capacity to serve another 150 men, women, and children through their long term life-restoring programs. Portland Rescue Mission is privately funded by approximately 30,000 generous donors and hundreds of volunteers.

After Los Angeles and Portland made their announcements, the governor of Hawaii recognized not just one city but the entire state of Hawaii as being in a state of emergency with regard to homelessness. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Hawaii’s population is approximately 1.36 million. Hawaii is a tropical paradise, yet it has the nation’s second highest rate of homelessness after Washington D.C.

According to a press conference on the governor’s website, Governor Ige declared, “The biggest deficit in the system is shelter space for families.” The governor has put a task force in place. Moving forward, the task force will only meet on an as-needed basis, but the governor stressed that there won’t be any institutional complacency in dealing with the issue. The governor stated, “It is still a state of emergency in the sense that there are thousands of members in our community that continue to be homeless.”

“The lesson learned is that great things can be accomplished when we all work together. Despite the recent success of enforcement efforts in the Kaka’ako Makai area, homelessness remains a serious issue in every county throughout the state. We plan to replicate the Kaka’ako model as we work to address homelessness in communities across the state,” said Governer Ige in a press release.

In the press conference, Scott Morishige, the state coordinator for homeless residents, stated that at 465 people per 100,000 citizens, Hawaii has the highest rate of homelessness per capita of any of the 50 states. Morishige stated, “The state has identified a little over $1.3 million that we would like to put immediately out into the community through these various contracts statewide.” The funding will first be used to expand housing in neighboring islands. Morishige added that funding will be utilized to provide housing as well as to assist with the costs of first month’s rent and security deposits.  “There’s still much work to do. The alarming increase in unsheltered individuals and families over the past two years is particularly significant on O’ahu. This proclamation will expedite the state’s plans to help these individuals and families to more quickly transition to permanent housing,” said Morishige in a press release.

In the past couple of months, the seriousness of homelessness has been recognized by two cities and one state. Such populations exist all over the country in many other states including Massachusetts. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, the greater part of the homeless community continues to face poverty, healthcare issues, violence, and discrimination.

Megan Hustings, interim director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, indicated, “Homelessness has been an emergency for thirty to forty years now. The cost of housing is increasing at a rate that people can’t keep up with.” She added, “The National Coalition for the Homeless appreciates the cities and the states that are taking an initiative to seriously address homelessness.” However, Hustings stated that the root causes of homelessness need to be identified. She stated, “In the short term, the emergency declaration is a reasonable solution. However, long term solutions need to be put in place.”