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Hawaii Follows Los Angeles In Declaring A State Of Emergency Over Homelessness

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Unprecedented trend in western US allows cities and states to cut red tape to allow for more housing and funds as local governments struggle to combat crisis.

“Hawaii became the third US jurisdiction on Friday to declare a state of emergency over homelessness, following similar moves in Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon, over the past month.

Using emergency declarations to tackle intransigent homeless crises is “a new phenomenon”, according to Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. Public officials typically declare states of emergency before or after a natural disaster.

The tactic may jar cities and systems out of what for many has become a new normal.

Thirty-five years ago, homelessness was not a widespread phenomenon. Few people were unable to afford housing, and among those who couldn’t, most remained homeless for only a brief stint.” said theguardian.com

“But in the early 1980s, a number of factors – including rising income inequality, deinstitutionalization of psychiatric hospitals, and cuts in funding for low-income housing – combined to explode the number of people living on US streets. Back then, “homelessness was responded to as an emergency”, said Foscarinis.

Now, despite its status as by far the wealthiest country in the world, close to600,000 people in the US were homeless last year. Of those, nearly one-third had no shelter at all.

But officials and the public have grown complacent. It’s become commonplace for critics to argue that most homeless people choose to live that way, or taking a fatalistic approach that, as the Bible says: “The poor will always be with you.”

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Even though homelessness has been an epidemic for more than 30 years, “it’s still an emergency”, Foscarinis stressed, “and so it is important to name it as such”. Indeed, in nearly every measurable life outcome, from overall health to life expectancy to rates of violent assault, it is incredibly dangerous to be homeless.

Declaring homelessness an emergency is not merely a symbolic move on the part of public officials. It is also a bureaucratic distinction that cuts the red tape on zoning codes to allow for more housing, frees up money reserved for emergencies, or other changes.

In Los Angeles, the number of people living on the streets has been steadily increasing in recent years, even as the number of people experiencing homelessness nationally has gradually fallen. The latest count from earlier this year found 25,686 people in the city were homeless, an increase of 12% in two years, with two out of every three having no shelter at all. Of those 25,686 homeless people, 10% were children, one-third have some form of mental illness, and one-fifth are victims of domestic violence.” said theguardian.com

“On 21 September, Los Angeles became the first city to declare a state of emergency on homelessness. According to the Los Angeles Times, Mayor Eric Garcetti issued a directive to free up $13m in city funds to pay for continuing housing subsidies and keeping winter shelters open an additional two months. The declaration makes it easier for churches, nonprofits, and public facilities to provide shelter and eliminates some bureaucratic holdups that slow down the construction of new affordable housing. The city also declared a plan to devote $100m toward tackling the homeless crisis, drawing the money from a fund designated for emergency purposes.

“We wanted to do two things,” Garcetti told NPR. “One was to declare a sense of urgency; that this was an emergency, which legally allows us to open up our shelters earlier, even before we get rain or cold days, which is the legal requirement.”

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“But it was also a political emergency,” Garcetti continued. “We want to see an increased amount of funding, not only to see at the local level – and we’re working together very closely with the county of Los Angeles on this – but also from our state and national leaders, where we’ve seen a lot of housing dollars cut back over the last few years precisely when we need them the most.”

Two days after Garcetti’s pronouncement, the city of Portland followed suit with its own homelessness disaster declaration, which was approved by the city council on 7 October. The move allows city officials to bypass zoning codes that had prevented city properties from being converted into homeless shelters. According to the Portland Mercury, the city will also fund a pilot program to build storage units where homeless people can securely leave their possessions.

Though Portland’s overall homeless population has declined 14% in the past two years, the number of people living without shelter has remained unchanged. Some critics claim Mayor Charlie Hales’ declaration is in response to his mayoral challenger, state treasurer Ted Wheeler, who has made addressing homelessness a top issue in his campaign.

There’s no imminent election in Hawaii, but that didn’t stop Governor David Ige from announcing a statewide homelessness emergency last week. There are currently 7,620 homeless people across Hawaii, half of whom live without any shelter. The number of homeless individuals in Hawaii has increased every year since 2011, as has the percentage who are unsheltered. The state now has the highest rate of per capita homelessness in the nation.” said theguardian.com

“The emergency proclamation would allow us to stand up shelters for families in an expeditious manner,” Ige said at a press conference Friday. Scott Morishige, Hawaii’s homelessness coordinator, also noted that officials planned to devote an additional $1.3m in funding to expanding services, and helping pay rent for those at risk for or currently experiencing homelessness.

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“While these steps in Los Angeles, Portland, and Hawaii are all seemingly positioned to help homeless people, there’s still reason for concern, according to Foscarinis.

“It could be something that is not positive if a city or state uses it in order to justify measures that are not helpful, like clearing sleeping people out or clearing encampments,” she said.

Indeed, sweeps of homeless camps have become commonplace in Hawaii, as have new ordinances that make it virtually a crime to be homeless in Honolulu, such as outlawing sitting down on sidewalks. State lawmakers have also established a public fund to offer homeless people a one-way flight off the islands.

Councilmembers in Los Angeles have similarly banned homeless encampments in parts of the city, and considered making it illegal to hand out food to homeless people. Criminalization measures like these are increasingly employed in cities across the country, according to a 2014 report from the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.” said theguardian.com

Though officials in Los Angeles, Portland and Hawaii don’t yet appear to be using their emergency declarations to further criminalize homelessness, it remains to be seen what happens after the initial press coverage fades. “We’re in a wait-and-see mode,” Foscarinis said.

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“Hawaii Follows Los Angeles In Declaring A State Of Emergency Over Homelessness”