Why Governments Declare a Homeless State of Emergency

Three cities, one county and a state have suspended laws that hamper their ability to address homelessness. But why now and what does it mean?
by | November 10, 2015
Children on a bus look at homeless people in the Skid Row area of Los Angeles. (AP)

"State of emergency" typically brings to mind a natural disaster -- say, a hurricane in the Florida Keys or a tornado in the Great Plains. But in the past few months, public officials in Los Angeles; Portland, Ore.; Seattle and King County, Wash.; and Hawaii have used the phrase to describe a different kind of crisis: rising homelessness. "The persistent and growing phenomenon of homelessness -- here and nationwide -- is a human-made crisis just as devastating to thousands as a flood or fire," said King County Executive Dow Constantine at a press conference last Monday.

The decision to declare states of emergency highlights the dual narrative of homelessness today: National point-in-time count data, collected in January, suggest that overall homelessness is trending downward. Indeed, some cities have made dramatic reductions in the number of veterans who are homeless on a repeat or long-term basis. But in certain places, and among certain parts of the homeless population, it’s getting worse. "For veterans in particular, Congress has made the resources available, scaled to the size of the problem," said Steve Berg, vice president of policy and programs at the National Alliance to End Homelessness. "For the rest of the homeless population, that just hasn’t happened."

The recent history of federal rental vouchers helps illustrate Berg's point. In 2011, amid the sequester, Congress cut $938 million from the Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers program, which provides rental subsidies to low-income households for market-rate apartments. The cuts in federal funding eventually forced state and local housing authorities to eliminate vouchers for roughly 100,000 families, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. In the past two years, Congress has only restored funding for about a third of those lost vouchers.

In lieu of federal action, the declarations highlight a new local approach to confronting homelessness. While in a state of emergency, public officials in these five jurisdictions can suspend payments on certain government services in order to devote money to the declared emergency and pull additional staff in to address the problem. The declaration also allows public officials to act faster in connecting people with behavioral health services and placing them in shelters. As a side benefit, the declarations raise public awareness about homelessness.

While all of the places in a state of emergency have legitimate reasons to be concerned about homelessness, the declarations are policy tools, not indicators that homelessness is worst in those places.

 

So what, specifically, are these five jurisdictions doing with their declarations?

Last month, Portland Mayor Charlie Hales used his declaration to commit an initial $30 million for homeless services and to suspend the city zoning code, which would normally prevent the construction of a temporary shelter near downtown. Later in the month, the city council approved another $67 million for affordable housing projects over the next five years, a decision reached on an accelerated timeline because of the declaration. “Would that have happened if we hadn't declared a state of emergency?" Hales said. "I think we would have studied it for six months.”

Hawaii is the only state so far to declare a state of homeless emergency, but it's easy to see why. Hawaii has the highest per capita rate of homelessness of any state in the country, and the second highest rate of unsheltered homeless people of any state in the country. After the recession, its homeless population grew for five straight years. During that time, the number of unsheltered homeless people rose by 35 percent. Of particular concern for Gov. David Ige was an uptick in family homelessness, so he directed $1.3 million for a shelter that would provide beds to families. To remove potential barriers, Ige also suspended 25 statutes, including laws that govern collective bargaining, historic preservation and environmental impact statements.

Beachgoers and tourists walk by a homeless person's tent in Honolulu. (AP/Marco Garcia)

The most recent of these declarations came from Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and King County Executive Constantine. In terms of new money pledged to homelessness, it’s the least amount of the three cities -- just $5.3 million.* Of that amount, only $900,000 will go to adding 100 emergency shelter beds. "It's extremely difficult to take that as a serious response," said Alison Eisinger, who directs the Coalition on Homelessness, a nonprofit advocacy group in Seattle. "There are 3,000 people on the street tonight." 

Eisinger is one of many homeless advocates in Seattle who remain skeptical about whether the declaration will amount to anything more than symbolism. "In the context of a flood or an earthquake, you'd see a massive and visible difference," said Sara Rankin, director of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project in Seattle.* "The Red Cross would be outside. There would be all sorts of evidence of an emergency response."

Seattle and King County's declarations did include a list of urgent requests from the state and federal government, including an expansion of rental vouchers. While Rankin acknowledged that the emergency declaration could add shelter beds, she was disappointed by how little city funding the Murray administration had committed to the initiative. "Acting faster with a very small amount of money is not necessarily going to result in a significant impact," she said. The $5 million "is going to be pulled in a lot of different directions."

Unlike a disaster declaration, a homeless state of emergency does not require approval from the state or federal government. Leaders within a state or locality determine if the crisis has reached a sufficient point of catastrophe to warrant the label. But the start and end of an emergency is subjective, which is probably why such declarations are uncommon.

Because they are rare, it's unclear how long they will last. Hawaii's included a 60-day sunset in December, but the governor’s homeless coordinator, Scott Morishige, said it might be extended. Former Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle made a similar emergency declaration on homelessness in 2006 and extended it for two years. The Portland proclamation doesn’t articulate an exact expiration, but Hales said he assumed it will be in effect for a year -- the longest it can last without an extension by city council.

What the declarations do, if nothing else, is cast new light on a longstanding problem that deserves greater attention from policymakers and the public, said Stacy Kean, the communications director for Portland’s Union Gospel Mission, a nonprofit shelter provider. But Kean isn’t sure whether a grand public gesture to recognize and tackle homelessness will have an impact. History suggests otherwise. "Where you can get a little cynical is that we had a 10-year plan to end homelessness," Kean said, referring to a regional strategy that launched in 2004. "And it didn't work."

For more, here are links to each jurisdiction's declaration: 

Hawaii

Los Angeles

Portland

Seattle

King County

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development collects point-in-time-count data from communities across the country on an annual or biannual basis. Governing compiled the counts for total homeless persons and total homeless persons who are unsheltered for the United States and for all four communities that are now in a state of emergency. Like most large metro areas, Seattle and King County report their data as one community, as do Portland and Multnomah County and Los Angeles and Los Angeles County. 

Unsheltered Homeless vs Total Homeless

*CORRECTIONS: A previous version of the story incorrectly stated that Seattle had committed less new money than the other three communities in a homeless state of emergency. It has committed less than the other two cities, but more than Hawaii.

The story also incorrectly stated the first name of Sara Rankin, director of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project in Seattle.