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States of Emergency: How 3 Major U.S. Cities Respond To Homelessness

Los Angeles made national headlines last week when Mayor Eric Garcetti declared a state of emergency for homelessness: a first in American history. Los Angeles is struggling with one of the largest populations of people who are homeless in the U.S., but no major center has figured out how to adequately respond to the escalating epidemic.

Here is what three major urban areas are doing to combat the crisis.

L.A. Declares Emergency, Portland Follows

Since Garcetti's tenure began in 2013, homelessness in L.A. has risen by 12 percent: approximately 26,000 residents are unsheltered.

The mayor's declaration was the product of equal parts frustration and compassion: "This city has pushed this problem from neighborhood to neighborhood for too long, from bureaucracy to bureaucracy," he told Al Jazeera America. The state of emergency allows the city to access federal funds, which will help supplement the $100 million that city council plans to spend over the next year on housing.

That figure may seem impressive, but it likely won't be enough to solve the problem. As Jennifer Medina of The New York Times reported, "Los Angeles already spends more than $100 million [...] to deal with issues that stem from people living on the streets." Those efforts involved cracking down on homelessness by breaking up encampments and seizing the property of unsheltered people in L.A.

If that fails to make a dent in the problem, can declaring a State of Emergency and spending $100 million make a difference?

Perhaps not. But the decision challenges us to see people who are homeless as a threat to the well-being of America's cities - even in cities with smaller populations. On Sept. 26, Portland, Oregon Mayor Charlie Hales similarly declared a state of emergency which empowers the city to fast-track shelter developments. These will, it is hoped, prevent the city's 1,800 people who are homeless from becoming casualties of winter.

San Fran Disinvites Homeless Tailgaters

Not everyone is responding compassionately to the crisis. In August, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee offered a simple message to the city's 6,686 people experiencing homelessness: "They are going to have to leave," he told CBS. The mayor offered vague assurances of alternatives, but his message was clear: he wants the streets cleared of people who are homeless before the city hosts Super Bowl L on Feb. 7 2016.

The mayor's treatment of homelessness as a nuisance drew ire from County Supervisor Jane Kim, who suspects Lee of putting financial interests ahead of humanitarianism: "This is a concern every day," she told Heather Knight of the San Francisco Chronicle. "It's not just a concern for the Super Bowl, when we have tourists and corporate interests in town."

Lee responded that his interest in solving homelessness in San Fran extends beyond the Super Bowl festivities, but he didn't provide the Chronicle with concrete details.

New York Backslides into Squalor

New Yorkers fear that the recent rise in homelessness and crime will reduce the Big Apple to the Taxi Driver-style squalor that characterized the city in the 1970s and 80s.

In August, Rudy Giuliani urged the city to revive the plan that helped him "cure" the epidemic: "You chase 'em and you chase 'em and you chase 'em and you chase 'em, and they either get the treatment that they need or you chase 'em out of the city," the former mayor told NBC.

But is homelessness the fault of people who are homeless, as Giuliani suggests? Jennifer Medina of the New York Times disagrees: "In urban areas, including New York, Washington and San Francisco, rising housing costs and an uneven economic recovery have helped fuel a rise in homelessness."

Homelessness, Medina suggests, is merely the symptom of endemic economic problems that have to be addressed. In New York, the faces of that problem are mothers who work multiple jobs but have to live in shelters with their children.

Mayor Bill de Blasio hopes to help those families by committing $10 million to a rental-assistance program that will help approximately 1,000 adults. But much more needs to be done to combat the problem. Over the winter of 2014-15 winter, the homeless population rose to levels that the NYC hadn't been seen since the Great Depression: approximately 60,000 people, with 16,562 crowding shelters that had vacancy rates of less than 2 percent.

Even the $84 million that De Blasio pledged to spend on the homeless over the next four years likely won't be enough as New York's homeless population dwarfs that of Los Angeles.

But perhaps Del Blasio's measures -combined with the efforts of his fellow mayors in LA and Portland - will be enough to draw America's attention to the severity of the crisis,

h/t The New York Times, Al Jazeera, NBC, City Lab, CBS, SFGATE, Reuters, Los Angeles Times, Mic, The Washington Post


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