State of emergency sought for homelessness
LOS ANGELES — Facing a deepening quagmire over homeless encampments, Los Angeles elected officials are increasingly looking to sweeping statewide initiatives to shake loose solutions.
The latest proposal from Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and City Councilman Joe Buscaino would have the governor declare a state of emergency on homelessness in California.
Supporters view such a declaration as a novel strategy to free up state and federal funding typically reserved for natural disasters, such as earthquakes or wildfires, and to suspend or streamline the regulatory hurdles that often slow down shelter and housing development.
It also could block NIMBY opponents from using environmental reviews to sue and delay or block homeless facilities from opening.
But some question whether an emergency declaration would be merely symbolic, given President Donald Trump’s rejections of more federal funding and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s commitment of $1 billion for local homeless programs and support for more regulatory relief.
Last signed a package of legislation that, among other things, exempts from environmental review supportive housing and shelter projects in the city of L.A. that receive funding from certain public sources, including the $1.2 billion Proposition HHH housing bond that voters approved in 2016.
Another new law allows cities in Alameda and Orange counties, in addition to the city of San Jose, to declare a shelter crisis so those local governments can eventually bypass some planning and zoning regulations to expedite construction.
“The governor should not sign a declaration of emergency until the proponents identify the specific laws and regulations they want to get around, and the resources they believe the declaration would free up,” said Gary Blasi, a retired law professor who specializes in homelessness issues. “The state statutes regarding emergencies were not designed to respond to longstanding political, leadership and moral disasters.”
Newsom has not taken a stand on the current request for a state of emergency declaration. Alex Comisar, spokesman for Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, said it was “a choice for the governor to make.”
“There are more questions that need to be worked through before he could support something like that,” Newsom spokesman Nathan Click said.
In 2015, City Council members and Garcetti announced that they would declare an emergency locally, but then dropped the idea as the mayor sought a statewide declaration from then-Gov. Jerry Brown, who turned him down.
Then in 2018, Los Angeles declared a shelter crisis, which, along with a legislative change, triggered streamlining of red tape around developing emergency beds on public land.
Many in L.A. have been frustrated by the sluggish pace of construction of new shelters and housing for the estimated 44,000 residents in the county, including 27,000 in the city, who live outdoors in tents, cars or lean-tos, as opposed to shelters or other temporary housing.
Only 477 emergency shelter beds have been added in the last 2 12 ⁄ years for households without children, which form the bulk of the homeless population, according to an inventory released in September.
Buscaino said he has grown particularly frustrated that even temporary tent shelters on public land have become bogged down in approval processes.
“We’re stopping for every red light, instead of treating this like an emergency,” Buscaino said.
Before a meeting Friday of the governor’s task force on homelessness, headed by Ridley-Thomas and Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, Newsom, in a letter, asked members to prioritize getting people off the streets.
He underscored that local communities must “fully enforce” public safety and health laws, touching on the controversial issue of sanitation sweeps of encampments and other police enforcement. He also asked the task force for proposals to break down barriers to building housing and to get more homeless people into treatment.
A homeless encampment in downtown Los Angeles in April 2018. The city is increasingly looking to sweeping statewide initiatives for solutions in turning the tide of growing homelessness.