Does Declaring a Homeless Crisis Mean Calling in the Cavalry?

Sally and her husband, and two kids, moved into their neighborhood on the west edge of Los Angeles County a handful of years ago. They were willing to pay a premium on their new home because they were attracted by the good school district, the ocean air, and the fact that they were insulated from typical urban issues like crime, poverty, blighted neighborhoods, and homelessness.

A year ago, while accompanying her children to school, Sally saw a few tents pitched along the sidewalk of the boulevard they walked each school day. Thinking nothing of it, she simply crossed on the other side of the street staying away from the peculiar people.

After a few weeks, however, the few tents became an encampment of a dozen temporary structures filled with people who were homeless. She brought up the issue at the school PTA meeting, but after a few months of no one responding, she called up her local city councilmember. It was the first time she had ever interacted with a city official.

Sally is one of thousands of constituents within cities and counties throughout the State of California who are clamoring for local and regional governments to respond to the growing numbers of people who are homeless in their neighborhoods.

The increasing visibility of people who are homeless living in tents and RV's has turned even the most liberal and compassionate residents and business owners into neighbors calling for local government to respond, and respond quickly.

With budgets still tight after a devastating recession, local governments are calling on the state to provide resources. Their strategy has been to ask the state to declare a state of emergency on homelessness, with the goal of receiving $500 million dollars of funding to address their homeless issues.

Such a response certainly makes sense. When Hurricane Matthew recently threatened states on the Southern Atlantic Coast, the President declared a state of emergency, releasing federal funds and emergency response teams.

But some communities have other definitions of what an emergency response should be toward the crisis of homelessness. In California's Orange County, one of their communities indeed declared a crisis on homelessness.

But rather than fund more resources to house and assist people who are homeless, the resources were geared toward public safety patrols, lighting and other responses to prevent people from sleeping on the streets. A total of $730,000 was allocated.

The temptation to simply use law enforcement, security patrols, or other means of pushing people out of a neighborhood is certainly an enticing 'quick fix". Most people in neighborhoods inundated with homelessness would probably prefer such a response.

But calling in the Cavalry to address homelessness simply does not work. Being homeless is not a crime. Any action that might criminalize a person's state of homelessness simply attracts a civil lawsuit that basically shuts down a community's ability to actually help those who are on the streets that need housing, and prevents a community from dealing with those on the streets who are actually breaking real laws.

Basically, if a community responds to homelessness as if it is a criminal act, it will actually increase homelessness.

Instead, calling on local and state governments to consider homelessness as a state of emergency, and allocating significant resources to build housing and provide services, is the most prudent response to homelessness.

Such a declaration may not decrease the homeless encampments near Sally's home next week, but in the long run, enough housing and services will reduce, if not end that encampment.