Local officials of Seattle and King County, Washington have declared a civil state of emergency for homelessness this week. Seattle follows Los Angeles, Portland, Oregon and the state of Hawaii, who have made similar proclamations likening the seriousness of homelessness with the aftermath of natural disasters. Unlike a natural disaster homelessness is not a new phenomenon, it has been prevalent for almost 40 years, but is being exacerbated with growing economic inequality and lack of affordable housing, etc. Homelessness is not contained to these areas either; it is widespread across the United States. It is safe to say that our country as a whole is in a state of emergency!
The recognition of epidemic levels of homelessness is long overdue. According to Mayor Ed Murray of Seattle, “More than 45 people have died on the streets of the city of Seattle this year and nearly 3,000 children in Seattle Public Schools are homeless,” In Hawaii, there were 7,600 people experiencing homelessness and only room for about 3,800 people in shelters or housing programs; among these unsheltered individuals were 439 children. The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority counted more than 44,000 individuals experiencing homelessness in the county. Likewise, Portland, Oregon, officials counted 1,800 individuals including 566 women experiencing homelessness while unsheltered.
Further, as the value of our wages continues to decline, renters across the country are finding themselves paying 50% or more of their income on housing. 20.7 million households are housing-cost-burdened. Add to that the 1.5 million households living on $2.00 a day, the number of workers who can not afford fair market rents working 40 hours a week, etc. All further exasperating decades-long de-investment in affordable housing production and assistance to create growing homelessness.
Although these proclamations of emergency will enable regions to receive millions of dollars in crucial funding, these funds alone are not enough to prevent homelessness long-term. The allocation of emergency funds is fundamental to the effectiveness of local programs in preventing and ending homelessness. Hawaii has claimed they plan to use the funds toward the rapid construction of temporary shelters, increase of existing homeless services, and funding for housing first programs. Portland has stated that they will waive portions of state building codes to convert private and city-owned buildings into shelters, as well as build housing for people who will be served by the future psychiatric emergency center. While specific spending plans are in the process being negotiated, it seems that the common focus is the development of shelters. Even though shelters could reduce the amount of deaths on the street it is only a short-term solution that will not prevent homelessness and extreme poverty.
For long-lasting change we must focus on long-term systemic solutions, such as affordable housing, rent control, jobs that pay a livable wage, healthcare, and adequate funding for services like social security and disability, and so much more. The big picture response that we advocate is not easy, but it is necessary to correct the structure that has produced inequality and vulnerability for the last few decades. Homeless shelters alone will not remedy the factors that have produced homelessness in epidemic proportions.