Bramson: Should San Jose declare homelessness an emergency?
A homeless encampment amid flooding is pictured in San Jose. File photo.

    Last month, Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass declared a homelessness emergency in her city. The move was meant to dramatically speed up services for the thousands of people living on the streets, while also cutting through the local red tape that slows the delivery of new services to a crawl.

    Backing the new mayor’s play, the city council unanimously approved a set-aside of $50 million to guarantee immediate funding and relief to propel the crisis response forward.

    To elevate the sense of urgency, the declaration was time-limited, so the city was immediately on a six-month clock to get moving. It also called for specific targeted actions, with measurable goals to improve the speed and effectiveness for both temporary and permanent housing solutions. And there was specificity from the onset. The declared emergency was meant to focus on the “highest need encampments” — not end homelessness entirely — so everyone involved had at least somewhat of a clear sense of the scope of what the government was trying to accomplish.

    These might seem like obvious ingredients when making the decision to activate emergency powers, but the reality is that the irreducible complexity of the issue of homelessness can quickly muddle even the best of intentions, especially when you might not have the best plan in place and you are trying to act quickly. Declaring an emergency for an issue exacerbated by decades of systemic inequities will not solve the problem, so it’s critical to be realistic about what can actually be accomplished in a short period of time.

    So, with over 6,000 people homeless in San Jose and many more on the brink of losing their homes, should the Capital of Silicon Valley declare a state of emergency? My answer is that such a move needs to provide us with something more than what we already have if it is to offer any lasting value.

    For years, we’ve had a shelter crisis enacted in San Jose, which allows publicly-owned facilities to be converted immediately into overnight shelters and warming locations. But due to limited resources and stiff community opposition, there has never been more than a few sites opened at any given time, meaning that despite dozens of eligible locations available the actual intervention is sized at just a small fraction of the need.  Part of me wonders what would be different with a new emergency declaration now, given the fact that we haven’t even been able to fully utilize the limited powers granted by the Shelter Crisis Act, which has been continually reauthorized every year since 2015.

    But if we did take the plunge, it’s good to consider what might be the conditions for success.

    First and foremost, we can’t cannibalize funding or energy from existing efforts. We have a Community Plan to End Homelessness in place that’s helping thousands of our most vulnerable residents find housing or stay in their homes. This is a coordinated effort with the city, county, Housing Authority, and dozens of other agencies and organizations. This work is providing permanent solutions to an issue much bigger than one city’s declaration could ever hope to solve for, and there is absolutely no reason to divert energy from this important work given the tremendous progress and impact to date.

    To avoid this, the city must dig deep into its general fund coffers and come up with new money to address a specific problem related to the emergency. If we need more temporary units and basic needs assistance, find money for it without taking away from proven strategies like homelessness prevention or permanent supportive housing. The Los Angeles City Council didn’t sacrifice a single existing program, expeditiously finding $50 million in a combination of unrestricted funding and left over COVID support; we should be able to do something similar.

    And while we’re figuring out the details, we also need to be able to say why we are declaring an emergency in the first place. It’s critically important to have a perspective on this point. I can guarantee you that no single action will end homelessness, so what is the goal? Do we want to rapidly add shelter beds? Cut down the delays for the approval of more permanent housing? Mobilize more city staff and resources? Having clear measurable goals of what we want to accomplish and by when matters quite a bit. Emergency declarations have a flashpoint effect, but that light dwindles quickly if everyone is not rowing in the same direction to an achievable horizon.

    Failure to work through all of these components will mean more of the same. Sure, there will be a press conference, some headlines and a lot of talking, but nothing will really come of it. There’s no question that we need to continue to act with the highest level of urgency when it comes to ending homelessness in our community. But we need to make sure the response aligns with the challenge. Let’s use this moment to bring in additional resources and new partners, working together towards a goal that supports and bolsters all of the other efforts already underway. If we don’t do that, what do we really think can be accomplished?

    San José Spotlight columnist Ray Bramson is the Chief Operating Officer at Destination: Home, a nonprofit that works to end homelessness in Silicon Valley. His columns appear every second Monday of the month. Contact Ray at [email protected] or follow @rbramson on Twitter.

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