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What If We Acted as Though Homelessness Were a Real Emergency?

Cities that have tried it in the United States have made headway.

By Stefania Seccia 12 Apr 2017 | Megaphone Magazine / The Tyee

Stefania Seccia is the managing editor of Megaphone Magazine. Megaphone readers separately supported this particular series on homelessness solutions through a spring 2016 crowdfunding drive. Other publications wishing to publish this article or other Housing Fix articles, please contact editor Chris Wood.

Metro Vancouver mayors say B.C.’s most populated and affluent region has a shelter crisis, with at least 4,000 people living without a home.

In the region, the number of unsheltered people has risen by an average of 26 per cent annually in every year since 2011. Homeless people have set up 85 informal camps across the metro region, and in an average week, at least five more people lose their shelter.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson calls it “a state of emergency,” telling The Tyee in an interview that “the incoming B.C. government needs to make this an emergency priority” after the May election.

But what if those words came with real weight?

Other West Coast cities have experienced the same intensifying homelessness as Vancouver, driven by similarly growing populations, income inequality, low apartment vacancy rates, soaring rents, and sharply limited resources to shelter even the chronically homeless.

‘Emergencies’ south of the border

But south of the border several cities have declared the extent of their homelessness a “state of emergency,” using the declaration to jumpstart long-planned projects, jog bureaucracies out of inertia, raise awareness, and shake loose funding for more beds, shelter and support for people living below the poverty line.

Since 2015, Seattle and its surrounding King County in Washington state, the cities of Eugene and Portland in Oregon, San Jose and Oakland in California, and the State of Hawaii, have all declared an official homelessness, housing, or shelter-related, “state of emergency.”

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, a U.S. federation of public, private, and non-profit organizations, a state of emergency in American law “refers to a crisis or disaster” that allows the government to spend money more flexibly and to suspend normal procedures or regulations, such as bypassing zoning requirements.

In October 2015, Portland committed US$20 million, later topped up with an additional US$10 million from its regional government, for homeless services. At the same time it created a process to waive some zoning rules, such as parking and design requirements, to make it easier to open homeless shelters.

After the State of Hawaii declared its shelter emergency the same month, it built a US$250,000 temporary shelter for families. It also extended the terms of contracts for homeless services and increased funding by US$1.3 million for programs around permanent housing.

A month after Hawaii and Portland, and prompted in part by the discovery that 3,000 children in city schools had no secure permanent home, Seattle also declared a shelter emergency. It increased existing incentives for landlords to rent apartments to homeless veterans, and added US$7 million to its homelessness budget. Surrounding King County threw in another US$2 million.

After declaring its emergency in January 2016, Oakland, CA, granted projects providing services to the homeless a temporary partial holiday from planning, zoning, building or other permit requirements.

“Calling a [state of emergency] will not automatically increase resources,” the National Alliance to End Homelessness concluded, after studying their use across the U.S. But “for the communities that took this path, it seems to have garnered local attention and leveraged resources in a new way that may impact outcomes.”

By elevating the issue to a civic emergency, the organization found, declarations “increase the ability to quickly raise local funding for immediate action, and provide a tool to remove significant legal barriers [such as] zoning requirements and procurement rules.”

BC law also allows ‘emergencies’

British Columbia legislation also permits the declaration of a “State of Local Emergency” in its law of the same name. Like the federal Stafford Act in the United States, B.C.’s law stipulates that the emergency declaration must be linked to a natural or physical disaster.

U.S. cities interpreted that creatively, using their own authority and bylaws to declare a state of emergency within their borders.

“We declared a state of emergency for housing and homelessness in Portland because our housing prices, unfortunately, are rising faster than any other U.S. city and we have, like other West Coast cities, a big population of homeless people in crisis,” said former Portland mayor Charlie Hales, while he was still in office.

“The combination of those two things led us to say, ‘This is an emergency, let’s be real about that, put in some new money, try new things, and move quickly against this set of problems.’”

While 4,000 people still sleep in shelters or on Portland streets, that number could have been much higher. In the last year, the city and its county of Multnomah served 25,561 people with emergency shelter, permanent placements and prevention programs — the most ever.

Hales said that the city set aside some land-use regulations — around traffic, parking and design — for the purpose of encouraging shelter for the homeless. Basic fire and life-safety issues in building codes went untouched.

“Obviously that creates some nervousness in neighbourhood activists, but we haven’t had a lot of friction over that,” he adds. The city was able to quickly build a new shelter several weeks after announcing the emergency.

But waiving regulations was less of a focus than committing resources and funding. The city promised to spend roughly US$600 million over a decade for affordable housing. “That’s necessary,” Hales said, “that we throw a lot of money at the problem, hopefully in a thoughtful and efficient way.”

‘Emergencies’ made a difference

Portland and Multnomah County have exceeded their service goals since declaring their state of emergency. Even though it came into effect only in late 2015, city agencies still helped 4,147 people find shelter that year, nearly 500 more than the 3,575 that had been their goal.

Last year, they put 4,603 people in permanent housing, exceeding an updated target by 24 per cent. Since 2015, roughly three-quarters of the people helped were still permanently housed after 12 months. The city and county also added 1,884 beds to its emergency shelters, bringing their capacity to 6,644.

Marc Jolin is the initiative director for Multnomah County. He serves on A Home for Everyone, a joint collaboration between the county, cities of Portland and Gresham, and Home Forward, Portland’s housing authority. His job is to keep a 10-year plan to end homelessness on track.

851px version of PacificNorthwestHomelessnessChart.jpg
Vancouver and Victoria may have fewer homeless than some US cities, but they also have far fewer rental vacancies. Data by Stefania Seccia, graphic by Christopher Cheung.

States of emergency work best, Jolin says, when plenty of groundwork’s been done to prepare for them. Portland had a housing action plan, a healthcare action plan, and a “vetted strategy” that it could move on quickly once the emergency declaration provided some political will.

“For me, the state of emergency really created opportunity to move towards these goals a lot more quickly than we imagined,” Jolin says. He credits the state of emergency for prompting Portland to pledge enough of its own funds to create the 560 shelter beds added to the city’s system immediately after the emergency was declared.

“I think different mayors have come to the state of emergency in different ways, with different things in mind about what they want to accomplish,” Jolin says. “Our mayor’s focus was pretty inward.

“It wasn’t, ‘We want the federal government to do something,’ or ‘We’re trying to send a signal.’ It was, ‘How can we rally ourselves locally to do more about this?’”

Unintended consequences

What communities do with a state of emergency differs from city to city. In Seattle, advocates became worried about unhelpful consequences.

To address core homelessness, the city allowed more authorized tent cities. It even provided some funding to administer them. But 10 months after the declaration, advocacy organizations raised concerns about the city’s continued “removals” of unsheltered people and their belongings from other street encampments.

The American Civil Liberties Association of Washington, the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness and Columbia Legal Services were among the groups that complained that the ongoing encampment sweeps often simply displaced people who would return to the site from which they’d been “removed” because they had few other options.

Yurij Rudensky is a lawyer with the non-profit Columbia Legal Services, which provides civil legal aid in Seattle. He says the state of emergency did free up funding for the homeless there. But more sweeps happened too. “What we know is a state of emergency was declared, and the volume of sweeps increased.”

His colleague, Ann LoGerfo, says the city stepped up its sweeps of unauthorized informal encampments, dismantling as many as 600 in 2015, and conducting operations on four days a week during most of 2016. “You have a few hundred more [shelter] beds,” LoGerfo says. “But you have 3,000-plus on the streets on top of those already in shelter. So there’s still an enormous number of people outside.”

LoGerfo says Seattle may have hoped to secure more support from senior governments, “but it didn’t really happen.” Her caution to a city that declares a state of shelter emergency is to make sure that funding is in place to get things done.

Human, but still a disaster

But whatever specific plan and source of funds emerge, advocates argue that the human emergency on city streets needs to be taken just as seriously as a natural disaster.

“What we said to the city at the time the state of emergency was declared was, ‘Treat it like a true emergency,’” Seattle’s LoGerfo says. “If there was an earthquake, all sorts of things would have been made available to the people who were victims of the emergency, so why aren’t those things being made available to the homeless if it’s a homeless state of emergency? Why aren’t community centres opened?”

Rudensky echoes LoGerfo, noting that in a natural disaster setting, public facilities get repurposed, “and that is something that we did not see done during this declaration.”

“If a big portion of our housing stock was, God forbid, destroyed one way or another,” he says, “I don’t think in that state of emergency the city would be enforcing the no-camping ordinance, and keeping all the public spaces clear, in such a strict way.”

A clearly identified individual who advocates for the initiative can help partner agencies and governing bodies stay on target. That person should have experience in homelessness issues and be ready to consult with people in precarious housing situations.

Jolin, for example, helps keep Portland, its surrounding county and neighbouring cities all on the same page. Less than seven percent of his US$43 million budget goes to office operations though. The rest pays for contracted social workers and homeless support services.

The job is inevitably political, he says, because, “I am trying to align the perspectives and directives of multiple [elected officials] and multiple jurisdictions around this” priority. But transparency and accountability also come with the job.

“We’re much better off telling it like it is,” Jolin says. “In part because it is so much in the public eye, there’s so much scrutiny. People want to understand, if we’re having so much success housing people, why is it still so bad outside?”

Ombudsperson for the homeless

In Montreal, Mayor Denis Coderre last April named Serge Lareault as the city’s first “protector of the homeless.” It’s a position that functions much like an ombudsperson for the homeless at the municipal level. Coderre had the idea when he met with the City of Vancouver’s now retired homeless advocate, Judy Graves.

Lareault started in the field more than 20 years ago, working with a group of social workers and homeless people, and founding the street paper L’Itineraire in 1994. He has also worked with the International Network of Street Papers, of which L’Itineraire is a member. (Disclosure: so is Megaphone, the Vancouver street paper where I’m managing editor).

“For the mayor,” Lareault says, “it became important to have at the city administration [level] a person in charge to assure the citizenship and consideration of the homeless. I hope to be able to influence the creation of an ambitious action plan, and convince the government of Quebec [to make] a major investment in homelessness and poverty.”

His position in Montreal’s Social Diversity Service department pays Lareault $92,125 a year from its $2 million budget, and has a three-year mandate.

He spends much of his time talking with people living without a home, “to be sure that the point of view of the homeless is taken in consideration,” Lareault says. But he’s also meant to analyze the needs of 3,000 unsheltered people, recommend services to help them, and align police, municipal courts and administrators around helping the vulnerable population.

He and his boss have one other objective. “The vision of the mayor is to create my position and encourage the government of Quebec to do the same,” Lareault says. The role could be more effective, he believes, if it were able to influence how homeless people are treated across all provincial ministries.

While declaring a state of emergency won’t solve homelessness by itself, it could be the spark needed to build the support and shelter required to deliver on one of the most basic human rights.

When invoking the “E” word, it’s essential to have a plan, a mission advocate, and funding lined up from somewhere. But it’s perhaps most important to treat the housing crisis with just as much urgency as any other disaster.  [Tyee]

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