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Alameda County Declares State of Emergency on Homelessness. What Does That Mean?

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a row of tents and wood boards up against motor homes under a freeway overpass
Encampments and motor homes near 24th Street in West Oakland. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The Alameda County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved a countywide state of emergency (PDF) on homelessness in the East Bay.

The order directs county staff at the Office of Homeless Care and Coordination to develop an emergency response plan, including determining how much funding is needed to significantly decrease homelessness and where to direct those resources. Supervisors said the hope is to fast-track funding and bypass regulations. But specifics around what that means have largely not yet been determined.

“I introduced this resolution because the number of people experiencing homelessness is surging, creating dangerous, inhumane situations across the county,” said Alameda County Board of Supervisors President Nate Miley, who represents parts of Oakland, Pleasanton, Ashland, Castro Valley and Fairview. “Alameda County is in crisis — this is an emergency, and it’s our job to respond accordingly!”

According to the latest county Point-in-Time data (PDF), the number of unhoused people in Alameda County increased by 22% from 2017 to 2022, going up from 5,629 to 9,747. The majority (73%) of unhoused residents in the county live outside, in cars or otherwise without access to shelter.

Alameda County’s decision follows similar moves in places like Los Angeles County, which in January of this year also declared a state of emergency over its homelessness crisis.

Supporters of the emergency order called the situation a health issue, and pointed to the fact that people in Alameda County who are unhoused have significantly higher mortality rates than Alameda residents on average. More than 1,100 Alameda County residents died while homeless between 2018 and 2021 — 5.8 times greater than the number who died in the general population, according to county data.

Across the Bay Area and in Alameda County, homelessness also disproportionately impacts communities of color. Black residents make up nearly 43% of the county’s unhoused population but only 10% of the county’s overall population.

Since 2020, Alameda County has allocated more than $200 million to address homelessness through programs ranging from assisted living support to adding new units, in addition to crafting the Home Together Plan (PDF) last year. That plan provides a blueprint for the county to significantly reduce homelessness by 2026, from prevention efforts that would keep people housed to increasing housing and shelter placements for people who are unhoused.

At the Board of Supervisors hearing on Tuesday, Miley said that the Home Together Plan has “some very good deliverables,” but that “there still is a situation that’s pressing upon us here in Alameda County.”

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Authors of the Home Together Plan estimate that the county needs to add more than 24,000 housing units and subsidy slots, more temporary shelters, and a variety of programs like short-term support to prevent eviction, rental subsidies and supportive services within housing.

The total cost for increasing the shelter and housing opportunities across Alameda is about $2.5 billion, according to the plan, plus one-time development costs for acquiring and constructing new buildings.

“Despite the enormous efforts by the county, homelessness continues to increase. Combined with an expected wave of evictions as pandemic-era renter protections end, and we believe the situation is only going to get worse,” Erin Armstrong, senior policy advisor for Miley, wrote in an email to KQED. “Our hope is that this emergency [declaration] will unlock the tools and resources needed to fully address the crisis.”

The first phase of the emergency response will be looking into what the county can actually do with such an order. (At Tuesday’s meeting Miley misspoke, saying the proposal would only require the county to explore an emergency plan, but his aid and legal council noted the actual item being voted on was the emergency declaration itself).

Miley said he hopes that Alameda County will be able to potentially accelerate hiring workers on the frontlines for homelessness and behavioral health needs, as well as to more efficiently build or convert housing and request resources from the state and federal government.

Kerry Abbot, who directs the Office of Homeless Care and Coordination, said at the meeting on Thursday that it currently takes about six to nine months for the staff recruitment process to get underway.

The board’s legal council said at the meeting that they still need to review what specific ways the emergency declaration will allow the county to circumvent certain rules and legislation, and that will look different for cities that have their own planning and hiring procedures as opposed to unincorporated areas of the county.

“All our respective districts are reaching out about this issue,” said Supervisor Keith Carson. “When we come back in 60 days, I hope we can be more specific about what we can do as well as what we want to do.”

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