The Pew Charitable Trusts

Governments typically declare a state of emergency to deal with natural disasters like hurricanes and wildfires. But over the last two months, several West Coast cities and one state have used the declarations to tackle a worsening homeless crisis.

Hawaii, Los Angeles, Seattle and Portland, Oregon, have all declared states of emergency, using the proclamations as a way to loosen up funds or bypass ordinances to take swifter action.

Other cities and states across the country are also grappling with rising homelessness. With shelters at capacity, Washington, D.C., started housing families in motel rooms to help pre-empt the surge of people looking for winter shelter. In New York City, where most homeless people are housed in shelters, the city is looking to add 500 beds for the winter.

But the emergency declarations represent a new approach. One motivation is to publicize the problem, but officials say the declarations are more than a public relations gambit and will lead to big changes for the homeless in their cities.

“It has created a sense of emergency, and it describes the situation because we’re in a crisis. We’re galvanizing attention and getting the resources we need to address the problem,” said Greg Spiegel, homelessness policy director for the mayor of Los Angeles, Democrat Eric Garcetti.

In Hawaii, Democratic Gov. David Ige’s 60-day declaration extends contracts with homeless services providers and sets aside money for a family shelter. Kimo Carvalho of the Institute for Human Services, which describes itself as “the state’s homeless shelter,” said the declaration was intended to solve “a bureaucracy problem.”

“It’s a way for the government to do something about a problem actually happening now,” rather than waiting for the Legislature, Carvalho said.

Other homelessness advocates say the declarations are aimed at addressing a polarizing problem, but it’s too soon to know whether they will prove effective.

“These states of emergency are addressing a feeling people have. People are upset about the encampments and people on the street—whether it’s because they feel sorry for them or because they don’t like them,” said Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

In some places, the declaration preceded concrete plans to address the problem.

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