Frustration with the homeless crisis was pervasive with the public officials who have wrestled with the problem and attended the Unhoused: Addressing Homelessness in California conference at the University of Southern California yesterday. The danger words “emergency,” “crisis,” and “urgency” were echoed in many talks and perhaps a hard-nosed solution arose. 

Declare an emergency to bypass laws that are obstacles for change and mandate the standards and goals that must be met to end the crisis. 

Sponsored by USC’s Sol Price Center for Social Innovation and the USC Schwarzenegger Institute, two former governors, four current mayors, a couple of county supervisors, five current or former state legislators, a city council member, and the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development appeared at the conference.* 

In introducing the program, former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said that homelessness must have immediate attention because the economic success of California has left too many behind. 

The combination of an emergency declaration and mandating a solution arose by combining the ideas presented by former Governor Gray Davis and Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg. 

Gov. Davis, serving as a co-chair of the Southern California Leadership Council, presented a two pronged idea to take on homelessness: (1) Declare an emergency, which will allow suspension of laws that serve as obstacles to building housing and treating the homeless, and (2) use the legislative model in place to expedite the building of sports stadiums to quickly pass environmental reviews to get on with the building of shelters and housing.  

Davis pointed out that too often homeless encampments suffer with crime, disease and drugs. Such a situation clearly creates an emergency, he argued. 

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who also serves as co-chair of the Governor’s Homelessness Task Force, argued that all the solutions requested of governments now are voluntary. “If it matters, require it,” he said. Mandate that local governments meet housing goals. Also, implied with the mandate formula is that the homeless would be required to use the resources provided them for housing and treatments for drug and mental issues. 

Steinberg was aware that SB 50 by Senator Scott Wiener failed because it dictated changes local government must make. The mayor said the mandate should present the standards and goals on homeless fixes that must be pursued but leave it up to local governments to choose the path to reach the goals.

‘We are saying the homeless issue is not important enough because we don’t mandate,’ Steinberg contended.

 SB 50 failed because the loudest voice in the debate was against housing production, according to Long Beach mayor Robert Garcia. In other words, Nimbyism. 

Nimbyism, the Not in My Backyard philosophy, was challenged by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson. 

Carson called for stamping out Nimbyism. He said he understood why neighbors protest government mandated housing, especially since for many people, the greatest investment they make is in their homes. Carson argued that the image of government housing from a bygone era, building large public housing complexes that are often poorly maintained and supported, is not done anymore so there is no reason for Nimbyism. 

Secretary Carson announced a soon-to-be rolled out initiative that faith-based organizations adopt homeless individuals. Pointing to the fact that the disadvantaged relied on such faith-based organizations for help before government took on a larger role in this area, he said if every church, synagogue and mosque in America helped a homeless person for one year, the homeless problem would be solved.

With 151,000 Californians experiencing homelessness and the general public citing homelessness as the number one problem in the Golden State, the condition is indeed a crisis and an emergency. Expect frustrated politicians to push tough measures to meet it. It won’t be an easy sell. 

*Attending the conference were two former governors, Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger; four current mayors, Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles, Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento, Kevin Faulconer of San Diego and Robert Garcia of Long Beach;  Los Angeles County Supervisors Kathryn Barger and Mark Ridley-Thomas; two current state legislators Senator Holly Mitchell and Assemblyman Miguel Santiago; former legislators Kevin Murray, Kevin de León and Mike Roos; and Los Angeles City Council President Emeritus Herb Wesson along with United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson.