Editor’s Note: Mark Ridley-Thomas is a Los Angeles County Supervisor, principal author of Measure H, Los Angeles County’s Homeless Services and Prevention Act of 2017, and was recently appointed co-chair by Gov. Gavin Newsom to the Statewide Task Force on Homelessness and Supportive Housing. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinion at CNN.
Los Angeles is enduring a crisis of homelessness. We are in the eye of an economic storm – fighting the forces of high rents, stagnant wages, and a deficit of a half million units of affordable housing – that is pushing thousands from housed to homeless. And its cost, the moral expense to us as a community and region, deserves a statewide declaration of a State of Emergency.
This year’s count revealed that at any given point in time, there are more than 58,900 Angeleños experiencing homelessness; many are families sleeping in places not meant for human habitation. It is a frightening illustration of the challenges we face that many from afar may not easily comprehend – for every 133 people our service providers house every day, 150 more people become newly homeless.
It is a race against time, because most unsettling of all, homelessness kills. Last year, 918 people died on the street while they were homeless, and this year we are tragically on track to see more than 1,000 people die in Los Angeles County – an average of nearly three people are dying every day on our streets. For context, this is a rate nearly double the rate of homicide deaths in Los Angeles County. And, according to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, nationwide, those who do survive see their lifespans cut by an average of 20 years because they’ve lived among the elements.
Though we face a particularly acute crisis in Los Angeles, on the national level, in state after state similar trends persist as well. Despite an economy that is booming and unemployment at its lowest point in decades, cuts by the federal government to affordable housing programs and mental health facilities in the last few decades helped send many to the streets.
Nationally, in 2018, more than 552,830 – or 17 out every 10,000 – Americans were homeless on any given night. A recent study by Zillow found that the incidence of homelessness is growing faster in the least affordable rental housing markets, including New York, San Francisco and Washington, DC.
This is an enormously complicated challenge, with many deeply entrenched problems that demand creative and bold solutions at every level. When I led the call to action that is Measure H – a 10-year sales tax that generates an additional $3.5 billion dollars exclusively dedicated to homelessness services – it was to improve the lives of those facing hard times across the County.
I am forever thankful to the voters for this intervention of consequence, because it has paid tremendous dividends. Through Measure H we have been able to provide housing subsidies, put forth a housing innovation challenge, build shelter, and scale existing good practices that ensure formerly homeless persons are connected to services, such as those for mental health, medical needs and substance use.
But in order to stop the flow, we have to go bolder, get upstream and fill the gaps in the system. We have to build more affordable housing so that we can house more people quickly and permanently, and we need to do it much faster to cope with the housing deficit. We need to consider waiving the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requirements for all homeless housing projects. This statute requires state and local agencies to analyze significant environmental impacts of their projects, but has been used too readily to stop projects for reasons that have nothing to do with environmental protection. We must identify federal, state and local properties for safe sleeping and interim shelter. We need to preserve existing rent controls that prevent rent increases beyond 3-5% per year, and do what is necessary to avoid evictions without just cause.
Frankly, with more than 130,000 people homeless on any given night throughout California, we have to think broadly and intervene at the state level fast, because whether or not people are housed is literally a matter of life or death. Measure H was only the first step, locally. Now, it is time for another – a statewide declaration of a State of Emergency.
Practically, a State of Emergency is meant to alert officials to change their normal behavior and it orders agencies to implement emergency regulatory plans. This call would do that, but it would also do much more: it would provide recognition that time is of the essence, and that adequate housing is more than the four walls and a ceiling that protect us from the elements. As noted in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), it is an indelible right of dignity and adequate living.
I am grateful to Gov. Gavin Newsom for charging me and my co-chair, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg – and the other members of the Statewide Task Force on Homelessness and Supportive Housing – to develop substantive recommendations that combat this crisis. We recently had our first meeting, with the second scheduled for next week, to assuredly do our part to develop statewide strategies that will get people off the streets and housed, returning to them a measure of dignity and worth in the face of hard times. But without a doubt, declaring a state of emergency would help to expedite the implementation of these recommendations.