Lawmaker Proposes Giving President Power to Declare Homeless Emergency

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – With homelessness reaching crisis levels in California, a California congressman is proposing legislation that would let the president declare a homelessness emergency and unleash an array of federal assistance to help get people off the streets.

Tents that serve as shelter for homeless people dot the sidewalks in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco. (Nicholas Iovino/CNS)

U.S. Representative Josh Harder, a Democrat representing Modesto and the surrounding San Joaquin Valley, introduced the Homelessness Emergency Declaration Act on Tuesday.

Modeled after the Emergency Declaration Act of 1976, the proposed law would allow governors to request an emergency declaration to obtain federal support for housing, mental health care and related services. After receiving a gubernatorial request, the president could then declare a homelessness emergency, activating a range of federal assistance for service providers across the state.

“Homelessness is an emergency. Let’s call it what it is,” Harder said in a statement Tuesday. “My bill will bridge the gap between the president and the governor and allow us to get the federal support we need to get people off the streets.”

The declaration would enable the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other federal divisions to dole out resources and funding to state and local organizations that provide housing, emergency food assistance, transportation, mental health care, and job training programs.

California cities saw steep increases in homelessness last year. In San Francisco, the number of unsheltered people grew 14% from 2017 to 2019. In that same time period, Los Angeles saw a 16% spike and Oakland’s homeless population increased nearly 50%.

Jennifer Friedenbach, director of the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco, believes the federal government helped cause the current crisis by divesting in housing and social welfare programs for the nation’s most vulnerable citizens.

Friedenbach also blamed the housing crisis on rising rents, which she said force people to spend more money on housing, making them even more vulnerable to a temporary loss of income, hospital bill or gap in benefits.

“We in San Francisco have seen a massive amount of displacement especially among black and brown people and people with disabilities, and the thing they have in common is they don’t have access to accumulated wealth and are too poor to afford a place to live,” Friedenbach said.

A 2016 study by the University of California San Francisco found a group of homeless people with a median age of 58 suffered from health problems typical of people in their 70s, 80s or 90s. About 40% reported difficulty with one or more activities necessary for daily living, and a third reported having fallen within the last three months.

“It’s literally killing people and should be seen as an emergency,” Friedenbach said.

California is home to about 12% of the U.S. population, but 53% of all homeless people in the United States live in California, according to a recent study the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The state’s homeless population grew by 16% last year.

Harder’s emergency declaration bill is not the only solution the congressman has proposed to tackle the state’s most visible and vexing social problem. He has also urged his fellow lawmakers to increase federal investments in affordable housing and to pass his Increasing Access to Mental Health Care Act Bill, which would expand access to mental health programs, including treatment for substance use disorders.

Harder’s proposal also comes on the heels of a report by California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s task force on homelessness, which has recommended a constitutional amendment that would create a legal obligation for cities and counties to shelter homeless people. Local governments that fail to address the problem could face lawsuits under the proposed amendment.

The “mandate to end homelessness” would require a two-thirds vote of approval by both houses of the Legislature before it can be put to California voters as a ballot initiative.

Newsom also made combating homelessness a major part of his proposed $222 billion state budget last week. The governor wants to set aside $1 billion in new funding for housing subsidies and $1.4 billion by 2022 to provide preventative care and mental health services for homeless people.

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