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Housing and Homelessness

For Many, California’s Homelessness Crisis Should Be Treated Like A Natural Disaster

A white apartment building is pancaked after an earthquake. People are standing around outside looking at the damage.
A apartment building after the 1994 Northridge Earthquake.
(Eric Gelinas
/
via Flickr Creative Commons )
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There has been no shortage of rhetoric from elected officials and those running for office about the homelessness crisis and needing a federal response to address it.

In a state where over 161,000 people are experiencing homelessness, is it enough to declare homelessness an emergency? Would that push the Federal Emergency Management Agency to support the state the same way it helps after natural disasters?

Veronica Lewis, director of the Homeless Outreach Program Integrated Care System (HOPICS), thinks it could be, but there’s not much political will. She used Project Roomkey, temporary motel rooms that the city paid for during the pandemic for unhoused people, to illustrate how fast things can move when there is political will and a significant investment in resources.

Bureaucracy can be moved out the way when people want it moved out the way. Covid has shown us that.
— Veronica Lewis, director of HOPICS
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“Think about the millions of dollars dispatched and all the logistics that were worked out in 30 days, think about if you had the same level of energy and political will to create a long term solution,” Lewis said. “Bureaucracy can be moved out the way when people want it moved out the way. COVID has shown us that.”

At a two-hour forum attended by mayoral candidates that included L.A. city councilmembers Kevin de León and Joe Buscaino, L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer and U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, FEMA came up again.

Buscaino pointed to a 2019 op-ed he wrote asking for a state of emergency because a bridge home that provided permanent supportive housing for people experiencing homelessness in his district “took too damn long using government owned property.”

Feuer said declaring a state of emergency is “one ingredient in a larger array of solutions,” that should focus more on prevention, but would give a mayor the authority to commandeer property and eliminate competitive biddings. Bass supported declaring a local state of emergency, but said it’s not enough to cut through the red tape.

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“If you want a FEMA-like response, you bring in FEMA,” Bass said at the forum. “To do that you need a national state of emergency.”

De León agreed that unnecessary bureaucracy from every level of government is the biggest challenge he faces, but was less enthusiastic about the federal government’s response.

“We know that climate change and global warming is an existential threat to humanity, but we haven't seen the action out of Washington, D.C., yet,” de León said. “We have 10 million immigrants who have given their lives to this country and pay their taxes, but we don't have any immigration reform yet. I highly doubt we are going to have a declaration of a national emergency dealing with our unhoused neighbors.”

De León said declaring a state of emergency would be “symbolic” and does not provide permanent housing for people experiencing homelessness.

What About Eminent Domain?

L.A. City Councilmember Curren Price said that, despite the rhetoric requesting FEMA’s response to the homelessness crisis, there hasn’t been any actions taken yet.

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“Certainly at the state level they talk about that kind of response, but it hasn’t happened,” Price said. “We don't have the resources to mount that kind of assault effort. Even if we did, it would be limited to how much housing is available. We aren’t building enough of it.”

FEMA cleared all the bureaucracy and put checks in peoples hands and made sure we had workers to get that done. We haven't seen that response on homelessness.
— Marqueece Harris-Dawson, L.A. City councilmember

So far, the city of L.A. has focused on city-owned properties to move things forward, but Price said he thinks the city should be discussing the use of eminent domain to address the homelessness crisis because planning and land use is fundamental in the operation of government. Price said they’ve also experienced issues with hotels and motels since there isn’t a huge stock of hotels to be repurposed through programs, like Project Homekey.

“Conversations haven't gotten to privately owned property yet,” Price said. “If we are talking about a real crisis, then all hands should be on deck. Not just in South L.A., either. It should be in all parts of the city.”

Marqueece Harris-Dawson, councilmember for the 8th district, which includes the neighborhoods of Baldwin Hills, Crenshaw and West Adams, said the city, county and state processes need to be aligned.

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The councilmember said despite ongoing rhetoric, the governor is the only person who can declare a state of emergency for homelessness and get FEMA involved. He pointed to the 1994 Northridge earthquake as an example of true mobilization during a crisis that led to a section of the 10 freeway that collapsed being repaired within a year.

“FEMA cleared all the bureaucracy and put checks in people's hands and made sure we had workers to get that done,” Harris-Dawson said. “We haven't seen that response on homelessness.”

Vice president Al Gore stands at a podium outside with trees behind him. two men are sitting to his right while the vice president is talking.
Vice President Al Gore speaking at re-opening ceremonies for the Santa Monica Freeway following the 1994 Northridge earthquake on April 13, 1994.
(Gary Leonard Collection, Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)

As Harris-Dawson noted, FEMA's ability to make direct deals with hotel owners would go a long way toward helping the city place people in rooms — something that requires a significant amount of labor and coordination — while eminent domain isn't really necessary, since the rooms would be used on a temporary basis while more housing is built.

Daniel López, a spokesperson for Gov. Gavin Newsom, said the governor has made tackling the homelessness crisis a top priority of his administration, pointing to the $14 billion invested to create housing and provide treatment options for people with severe behavioral health challenges. López also praised the Biden administration’s partnership in extending FEMA reimbursements through July 1 to extend Project Roomkey.

“What we’re doing in California to tackle the homelessness crisis is unprecedented in both nature and scale, cutting through red tape and getting more folks off the street and into health and housing services faster than ever before and at a fraction of the cost,” López said in a statement.

The state of California hasn’t declared an emergency.

What questions do you have about homelessness?
Ethan Ward for a time lived in his car while attending community college. That experience informs his reporting on one of the most pressing issues in Southern California.