A Column on Human Rights

by Carol Denney

The mayor of Los Angeles and the mayor of Portland both declared states of emergency this September in response to the housing crisis. It sounds good, except for the reality that, as Megan Hustings of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty puts it, “homelessness has been an emergency for 30 to 40 years.”
“If this is what it takes for cities to take action, it is definitely good,” Hustings said. “What we’re concerned about in Los Angeles is that the declaration of an emergency is being used to open more shelters and put money into law enforcement — which is not the way to go.”
What does a declaration of emergency do? It depends on the city in question, but generally speaking, it creates more flexibility. Zoning laws can be waived and funding can be reorganized or acquired from more sources.
In May of 2009, an emergency was declared in Berkeley to close an elementary school for seven days over an outbreak of the flu. In November of 2009, in response to an oil spill in the San Francisco Bay, the governor declared an emergency for all affected communities. And every 14 days in Berkeley, an emergency is declared by the Berkeley City Council so the needle exchange can continue to save the lives of injection drug users.
In most such cases, a city council’s approval is required, but most people would not dispute that when thousands of people are living on the street, when there’s no state in the union where workers making minimum wage can afford market-rate housing, and when hundreds of thousands of school children are living in cars and trying to do homework in the dark, we have an emergency.
Still, the flexibility acquired in a technical state of emergency runs the risk of being misapplied by cities without pragmatic approaches to the housing crisis. Shuffling homeless people through shelters and ticketing people for sitting, sleeping, camping, etc. has yet to be officially recognized as an inappropriate response to the housing crisis by either Portland or Los Angeles, let alone many other cities nationally — despite the Department of Justice’s August 2015 official Statement of Interest regarding criminalization of homelessness being “cruel and unusual punishment” and a constitutional violation of the Eighth Amendment.
“While there are not enough shelter beds for people who need them, they are not an answer to homelessness,” stated Hustings. “They don’t address root causes.”
Those who watch in horror as cities nationwide continue adding to an already towering stack of anti-homeless laws would be wise to keep an eye on cities which make grand pronouncements about a state of emergency in housing availability when, in fact, this is old news.
There is nothing in the technical declaration of a state of emergency which requires a city to erase criminalization laws or create badly needed low-income housing. There is nothing in the declaration which obligates a city to recognize how silly it is to fine people for sitting down or sleeping, when they have no money in the first place.

A homeless man on a bench at Oakland City Hall Plaza. Multiply this man by a million to see the full dimensions of the housing emergency.  Tom Lowe photo
A homeless man on a bench at Oakland City Hall Plaza. Multiply this man by a million to see the full dimensions of the housing emergency. Tom Lowe photo

Megan Hustings has a recommendation for all cities with or without an emergency declaration regarding the housing crisis. She said, “A city needs to take a hard look at the local resources that are going into addressing homelessness — look hard at the resources and consider how to increase funding for affordable housing.”
She added that around 500 cities nationwide have inclusionary zoning laws where developers are obligated to reserve a small proportion of units for affordable housing, but the “inclusionary” units are not affordable to low-income people.
The Bay Area’s inclusionary housing, for instance, creates “inclusionary” housing units only affordable to people in the $80,000 to $100,000 income range — hardly helpful to a minimum-wage worker, who would need to work three full-time jobs to meet such costs.
“We have systematically disinvested in affordable housing over the last 30 to 40 years,” said Hustings. “We need to invest.”
Many housing solutions are obvious: permanent housing instead of, or in addition to shelters, legal outdoor spaces to camp for those who prefer it or are traveling through, toilets for those who need them, storage space for people who need storage space, youth and family-specific programs and assistance, etc.
The ancillary needs are equally obvious: increased funding to under-funded medical and supportive services so people aren’t forced to wait years for help.
When cities move toward practical efforts to address the serious nature of the housing crisis, they’ll stop wasting money on criminalizing the attributes of homelessness.
Advocates with a watchful eye will see them get serious about putting an end to the endless and repetitive abuse of police resources chasing poor and vulnerable people out of public spaces, hiring private patrols to harass people who fit a profile, and creating more ways to clog an already overwhelmed court system with cases in which a person’s only crime is to be poor.
We have an emergency, all right. But how we respond to that emergency is the real issue.