State of Emergency Powers and Los Angeles’ Homelessness
In 2015 Mayor Garcetti and Los Angeles City Council members introduced a motion to declare a state of emergency on homelessness but no action was taken on the motion. After 2015 the City went on to declare a shelter crisis emergency under the state code. While some progress was reported, homelessness continued to grow. In September 2019, City Councilmember Joe Buscaino called on Governor Newsom to declare a state of emergency but no action was taken on the request. On June 23, 2021, Sheriff Villanueva sent a letter to the Board of Supervisors requesting them to declare a state of emergency. To date, calls for emergency action have failed to remedy the homeless situation, resulting in government agencies not addressing the street encampments that create risks to public health in many areas such as in Venice.
The Los Angeles City Charter (Section 231) and the Los Angeles Administrative Code (Section 231(i)) indicate the Mayor has the power to “proclaim the existence or threatened existence of a local emergency when an occurrence which by reason of its magnitude is or is likely to extend beyond the control of the normal services, personnel, equipment, and facilities of the regularly constituted branches and departments of the City government.” In Los Angeles the Mayor, the Board of Supervisors, the Chief Administrative Officer, or the Sheriff can proclaim an emergency. A declaration of emergency provides the following:
Immunity from negligence;
Authority to promulgate emergency orders and regulations;
Confers extraordinary police powers;
Exceptions to statutorily mandated procedures; and
A first step in the process to access state/federal disaster programs.
A declaration of emergency could go into effect immediately and allow the Mayor to bypass the bureaucracy and eliminate inefficiencies in seeking solutions to a crisis including the homelessness problem.
The City also has the power to declare an Emergency Shelter Crisis under the California State Government Code 8698-8698.2. Declaring an Emergency Shelter Crisis would allow the City to provide housing to homeless individuals during the duration of the crisis. The Mayor and the City Council declared a shelter emergency crisis in 2015. The LA Times Editorial Board wrote two months later (November 17, 2015), “this whole process has been more of a turgid civics debate rather than an urgent response to a desperate situation.”
The Governor can declare a State of Emergency under Article 3, (8565-85740) when one or more local governments have proclaimed local emergencies and requested assistance from the state. A proclamation will provide certain privileges and immunities to state and local authorities responding to the emergency. The Governor can call upon the National Guard, the California Conservation Corps and any other state agencies that it requires. It also activates the California Disaster Assistance Act (CDAA) and paves the way for access to federal disaster programs.
The “state of crisis, shelter emergency” declared by the Mayor and City Council in 2015 may have been the basis of the City’s proposal for housing at Will Rogers State Beach seven years later in 2021. This proposal was deemed “infeasible” in August 2021 due to a lack of “infrastructure.”
Does this history of “…a turgid civics debate rather than an urgent response to a desperate situation” mean that the tool of declaring a State of Emergency is useless to Los Angeles and California during today’s homeless housing crisis?
Is it possible for a declaration to be applied in a manner that would provide for an inclusive process to find housing for homeless individuals living on the sidewalks and result in improved public health and safety for all?
How to accomplish this while preserving the civil rights of homeless individuals and the general public is not a simple matter nor is creating the exit plan for homeless people leaving the state of emergency interim housing. However, given what we have experienced so far, failing to act will result in a continued growing threat to public health and safety for everyone.
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