Homelessness as a State of Emergency

written by Jen Saunders
February 11, 2016

In 2015, a few communities experienced increases in their unsheltered homeless population and opted to take urgent action by declaring homelessness a State of Emergency (SOE). Although homelessness has always been a crisis, these communities declared SOEs as a way of noting that the situation in their jurisdictions is urgent.

Skeptics claim that such declarations will not lead to significant investments and hence will simply amount to open-ended political statements.

We wanted to know more, like whether these local decisions have national implications or what communities should consider before declaring a homelessness emergency. So, the Alliance, along with the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, took a deeper look into these declarations.

The findings can be found in a new brief Homelessness: A State of Emergency, which takes a look at homelessness SOEs that have recently been declared, the national implications, and reflects on how other communities should view SOEs.

Here are just a few of the key takeaways:

Prioritize the Issue

The communities that declared may have approached the issue differently, but all seemed motivated to use an SOE as a way to prioritize homelessness as an issue. The communities reported that SOEs were tools that allowed them to:

• Reduce bureaucratic barriers

• Suspend statutes and regulations

• Determine the amount of funding needed to urgently expand emergency shelter for various populations

• Highlight affordable housing issues

An important point to note is that declaring an SOE does not compel the Federal government to take any action or provide any resources.

Attention & Resources

SOEs seemed to garner local attention and leverage resources in a new way that could impact outcomes. Many communities cited that the declarations provided an opportunity to create strong political will, generate community support and engage stakeholders toward action. They also increased the ability to quickly raise local funding for immediate action, which was particularly valuable for the development emergency shelter and removing legal barriers. 

With these factors in place, communities hope to now be able to move quickly when it comes to addressing the housing and homelessness crisis.

Housing and Health Matter

Additional emergency shelter, as well as low-barrier shelter, are obvious needs for communities who have seen significant increases in their unsheltered homeless populations. But affordable housing, supportive housing, physical and behavioral health services, and enhanced outreach should also be a primary focus of additional emergency funding. It is, therefore, critical that communities develop a coordinated approach (i.e., cities, counties, States working together) to incorporate long term solutions to addressing homelessness with emergency funds. 

Want to Know More?

There are a few ways you can learn more about SOEs:

• Download the full Alliance brief, Homelessness: A State of Emergency

• Check out the brief by the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, Homeless States of Emergency: Advocacy Strategies to Advance Permanent Solutions

• Join the Alliance, the National Health Care for the Homeless Council and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness  for a webinar on Wednesday, March 9 at 1 p.m. EST dedicated to homelessness as a state of emergency.