It’s time for California’s governor to use the powers granted to him by the state’s constitution and declare a state of emergency on housing and homelessness.
The time for half measures has passed. The growing number of people without shelter in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento, San Diego, and other cities threatens public health and safety.
Allowing large numbers of people to sleep, eat, and defecate outside of designated campgrounds is not safe and robs them of their dignity. Homeless encampments overflow with dirty needles, feces, and rats, making them breeding grounds for diseases including typhus, tuberculosis, and hepatitis A.
The crisis is worsening. The number of homeless people in LA increased from 52,765 in 2018 to 58,936. Homelessness increased by 43% and 17% in Alameda County, which includes Oakland, and 17% in San Francisco, respectively. Deaths on the street rose 76% in LA and 75% in Sacramento over the last five years. Murders and rapes involving the homeless increased by 13% and 61% between 2017 and 2018. And 2019 data show that both deaths and homicides are continuing to rise rapidly.
In 2018, the people of California elected Gavin Newsom governor with 62% of the vote and a mandate to take radical action to significantly increase both temporary and permanent housing. He promised 3.5 million new units by 2025, which is 580,000 units per year. And he promised to create a homelessness czar with the power of a cabinet secretary to “focus on prevention, rapid rehousing, mental health and more permanent supportive housing.”
Newsom has not kept his campaign promises and the crisis is worsening. The number of people living outdoors has increased and violence both by and against them has risen by 30% and 37%. In June, the governor let a package of housing reform measures die. In August, he announced would not appoint a homelessness czar. And now the data make clear that less housing will be built this year than in any other year over the last decade.
The crisis demands bold and decisive action. That starts with declaring a state of emergency. Doing so will allow the governor to waive gratuitous regulations that are blocking and driving up the cost of new construction, and preventing the creation of temporary shelters. It will make California eligible for federal money if needed. He must also name a cabinet-level homelessness czar with the powers of cabinet secretary and invest in her or him the governor’s trust and power.
There is no shortage of land or money available to get the job done. The governor’s office earlier this year identified 1,390 state-owned parcels as being suitable for development. Space is rapidly opening up in former malls. There is billions in state and local money. It is time to start building.
California’s Constitution allows the governor to declare a state of emergency for any reason. He typically does so for natural disasters. On July 6, the governor declared a state of emergency for San Bernardino after an earthquake in which nobody died or was even injured.
Homelessness is far deadlier than natural disasters. Ten times more people will die on LA’s street in 2019 (~1,000) than died in the deadly 2018 forest fires (103). Over a three year period, more people will die on the streets of LA than died in San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake.
Assaults on the homeless are rising. On August 7, three men beat a 59-year-old man to death with a pipe for no apparent reason. On August 26, somebody burned a homeless musician to death by setting his tent on fire. And one day earlier, two men set fire to a homeless encampment that then raged out of control.
Assaults by the homeless are rising. Most are random and impulsive. In April, a man stabbed a 35-year-old father in the neck who was holding his five-year-old daughter on his lap. In May, a man beat a 62-year-old woman to death with an electric scooter in broad daylight, with no apparent motive. In July, a man sexually assaulted a disabled 87-year-old grandmother.
Social scientists believe the extreme stress of homelessness and drug addiction is making otherwise nonviolent people violent. Of the 12 homeless individuals suspected of violent crime in Los Angeles, CBS found that none had criminal pasts. “A squabble over space for a tent can escalate into assault with a deadly weapon,” said the head of homeless outreach for the LA police.
In Los Angeles and San Francisco, a growing number of residents are afraid to leave their homes and simply walk past homeless encampments. “The longer we leave people on the streets the more danger all of us are in,” says Rev. Andy Bales, who runs Union Rescue Mission. Bales lost his lower leg to flesh-eating bacterial infection resulting from his work for the homeless on Skid Row.
Homelessness has become a human rights crisis. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights last year condemned California’s response to homelessness as “cruel and inhuman.”
The problem is that, so long as there is no temporary or permanent shelter available to homeless people, it is unethical and, in many circumstances, illegal to prevent people from sleeping outdoors, even when doing so poses a threat to themselves and to others. As a result, LA alone wastes roughly $40 million per year on clean up operations that only last a few hours and fail to clean up human waste.
Addressing the homelessness crisis is one of the highest priorities for the people of California. They have repeatedly taxed themselves and voted to put more state and local money into solving the problem. Given that the problem has only gotten worse, not just over the last three years but last 30, voters are growing frustrated.
Part of the problem is the high cost of construction. LA voters in 2016 approved a $1.2 billion tax hike to build 10,000 supportive housing units for homeless, but instead, LA will build, at most, 5,000, because the cost per unit increased to $500,000. Those 5,000 units housing will only be enough for one-twelfth of LA’s 60,000-person homeless population.
Another part of the problem is the inability of governments to provide drug treatment to those who break the law. The 2012 ballot measure, proposition 47, successfully reduced the number of nonviolent drug offenders in prison. But with the threat of incarceration removed, many addicts opt for maintaining their addiction, even if that means living on the street, overtreatment. After the passage of prop 47, for instance, the number of people on Skid Row in LA enrolled in drug court treatment declined 95%.
The governor should rapidly create temporary shelter for all 90,000 unsheltered homeless people in California and require them to use it. If that sounds unduly harsh consider that it is precisely what the governor’s top homelessness advisor, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, recommends. “The right to shelter must be paired with the obligation to use it,” wrote Steinberg in The Los Angeles Times in July.
The same social contract should be in place for drug treatment. Drug treatment should be an alternative to prison. But if people opt against drug treatment they should not be allowed to threaten public safety and health, and violate laws, by living on the street. “Living on the streets should not be considered a civil right,” Steinberg rightly argues.
California is the fifth-largest economy in the world and has the most billionaires of any U.S. state including New York. If the latter can spend $1.6 billion to shelter 75,000 homeless, then California should be able to shelter 90,000 for $2 billion. Most of that money is already available but is being tied up by endless frivolous litigation and state government bureaucracy.
The main reason for the governor to act to end homelessness is for public safety and moral reasons, but a state of emergency will save taxpayer money by allowing the governor to waive unnecessary regulations fees to bring down construction costs.
A state of emergency would allow the governor to cut through the red tape that local governments can’t cut through. LA’s city council and the mayor declared a state of emergency four years ago and San Francisco did so three years ago, and it made no difference. “There’s paralysis in the system,” say longtime housing advocates.
Breaking that paralysis requires executive, state-level leadership, which is why mayors are imploring with the governor to act. For two years in a row, Berkeley’s mayor and city council have urged the governor to declare a statewide state of emergency on housing and homeless. Sacramento’s mayor urged stronger action by the governor last June in the LA Times.
Some will likely criticize the governor for declaring a state of emergency, rapidly building new housing, and enforcing the social contract on drug treatment. Others might sue. But the people of California are at a breaking point and are urging strong action. And any lawsuit filed would likely be resolved after a significant amount of permanent and temporary construction has been started and even finished.
Now is not the time for a governor who wants to be liked by everybody. Now is the time for a governor who will kick down doors and make some enemies. Now is the time for a governor who will do what it takes to protect public safety, public health, and human dignity. If the current governor is unable or unwilling to do so, then the people of California should elect someone who is.
*Michael Shellenberger is a Time Magazine “Hero of the Environment,” and president of Environmental Progress. Follow him on Twitter @ShellenbergerMD.