Step Up to Fight Homelessness

From Compton to Coronado, Long Beach to Lompoc, Santa Fe Springs to San Francisco, 115,000 people are homeless throughout California, many of them living in utter squalor in what’s supposed to be the Golden State.

That’s enough men, women and children to fill every seat at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, at Petco Park in San Diego and the Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento—combined. And unless our leaders step up and take immediate and extraordinary action, this humanitarian crisis will only get worse.

To date, more than 25,000 people have petitioned Governor Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency on homelessness. Many city and county officials in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and throughout California have urged the same, as have legislators in the state Assembly.

It is time for the state Senate to step up and make the same call to Governor Brown. And it is time for the governor to listen and then act. After all, if he can declare a state of emergency over a fruit fly infestation, doing the same for homelessness should be a no-brainer.

It would be a bold move, but not without precedent. Hawaii did it last year and again this year, with a homeless population of 7,000—less than one-tenth of those in California.

Indeed, California accounts for one in five of the entire nation’s homeless population, prompting U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein to send Governor Brown a letter last week, telling him, “It is clear that more must be done.”

Declaring a statewide emergency on homelessness could trigger the release of significant funding for rapid rehousing, rental subsidies and other desperately needed forms of assistance. That declaration would also provide immediate relief with the deployment of state personnel to help those in tent cities, and to establish command posts and triage sites for coordinating services.

This is a vital short-term fix which will help to address the most pressing concerns, while continuing to search for ongoing revenue sources that would build the housing and services infrastructure recommended by Los Angeles County’s sweeping Homeless Initiative.

I believe addressing homelessness is both a moral obligation and a practical necessity. Many caught in the grip of this humanitarian crisis are families with children, veterans and the working poor. Many struggle with stagnant wages, grossly inadequate housing stock, and skyrocketing rent – as much as $3,520 month for a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco, when the national median is only $1,120. In San Jose, the corresponding monthly rent is $2,180; Los Angeles, $1,940; and San Diego, $1,530.

It baffles me that a state of emergency can be declared for people temporarily displaced by an earthquake, wildfire or natural gas leak, but not for 115,000 people who are already homeless, living in unspeakable conditions and under peril of illness, violence and death. Leaving people unsheltered is costly to taxpayers, impacting law enforcement, health services, property values, and more.

The people have spoken, both by petitioning the governor and by responding in almost a dozen recent surveys that addressing homelessness is a top priority. They have even gone so far as to express an unprecedented willingness to tax themselves, if that’s what it would take to solve the problem.

Leaving no stone unturned in the search for funds to combat homelessness, Los Angeles city officials will ask voters in November to approve a $1.2-billion bond measure to build housing specifically for people who don’t have a decent place to live. Los Angeles county officials are considering imposing new taxes and selling advertising space on county buildings to close the homeless funding gap. These measures, however, will take time to generate revenue.

If the governor refuses to declare a state of emergency because he believes cities and counties should take the lead, it would be like withholding medicine from a desperately ill patient because the hospital hasn’t been built yet. Governor Brown must bring the state’s considerable resources to bear on this crisis– and now – in order to ease the suffering and despair of so many Californians and the communities of which they are a part.