By Jim Gonzalez
All over California, the term “state of emergency” has become the operative description of our homelessness crisis.
In Los Angeles, billionaire developer and mayoral candidate Rick Caruso says that if he is elected, he will declare a “state of emergency” his first day in office. In Sacramento, former mayoral chief of staff Daniel Conway is petitioning for a ballot measure entitled the “Emergency Shelter and Enforcement Act of 2022.”
Recent statewide poll results bolster the public perception that homelessness in California, and most notably in San Francisco, where I once served on the Board of Supervisors, has gotten out of hand.
For sure, the state of homelessness is a crisis for the poor and disabled whose economic misery, drug addiction and mental health conditions have cycled them into suffering and dying on the streets. For the rest of us, too, homeless truly is an emergency that requires our compassion, and resolve, to help the unhoused with nothing less than what Martin Luther King Jr. called the “urgency of now.”
As tent encampments overwhelm our parkways and civic spaces, they make us uneasy in the stark evidence they present of a broken society. It is an emergency that stirs shame and outrage within me every time I see the homeless outposts that have sprung up in almost every Sacramento neighborhood.
When I drive past the rows of tents with my grandchildren, they ask me about the people who live in them and who act crazy in our neighborhood. I explain the best I can that this is a growing social crisis linked to the failure of human beings to care for one another.
How can we stir the “urgency of now” to solve the homelessness emergency?
As somebody who has served the disenfranchised my entire life as an elected official, in my work for other office holders and in my advocacy for social justice, community and labor groups, it’s been difficult for me to reconcile my reckoning. But in my assessment of homelessness in our city and our state, it has become clear to me that we as a society need to be smart and tough, as well as compassionate.
Our starting point needs to be shelter.
Everything begins with assisting the unhoused into dignified, transitional living. A good shelter system necessarily provides the myriad services—job training, substance abuse and mental health—that can help a derailed or abused life get back on track. Mayor Darrell Steinberg’s Comprehensive Siting Plan gets us moving in that direction when it comes to thinking about shelter, although there are other ideas that can and should be incorporated into his blueprint, such as the repurposing of vacant commercial buildings into individualized living spaces.
Shelter first, then permanent supportive housing. And, substantial rental assistance, to hold back a flood of future homelessness that would otherwise be forced into the streets.
We also must address a key component of compassion, and that is outreach caseworkers, psychiatric technicians and other providers who are paid too little and burn out too quickly. We need to pay them well so they can provide essential services in a consistent and sustainable manner.
Mayor Steinberg’s “right to housing” ordinance is built on best intentions, but it needs to be even more robust. The Martin v. Boise case holds that a city can’t enforce a no-camping ordinance without available shelter space. Once shelter is provided, then, there needs to be consequences for those who refuse it. Conservatorships must be on the table, along with compassionate public-safety interventions replete with rehabilitative services.
My guess is that an overwhelming majority of the people on the streets would welcome offers of shelter. And we need to provide it to them immediately, not next year.
The homelessness emergency is real, and as a compassionate society we can only fix it with a social conscience and the sense of urgency that basic humanity demands.
Jim Gonzalez, chairs the Latino Economic Council of Sacramento, and is a former San Francisco supervisor. Email: email@example.com