Op Ed- By Gary Blasi
I represented my first homeless client in 1983. She was living in an old Chevy while she tried, for six weeks, to get help from the county. At least in the old car, she told me, she didn’t need to worry about rainstorms. Even in the relatively mild L.A. winter, getting wet can be fatal if you have no place to get dry, get warm and recuperate.
I’ve been thinking of that client’s story in recent weeks. Today, unprecedented numbers of people are living in makeshift shelters on our streets, and meteorologists are predicting the strongest El Niño event in history. If Mayor Eric Garcetti — and the mayors of other local cities and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors — don’t prepare to declare a “local emergency,” many may die.
Declaring a local emergency in Los Angeles is a legal act with specific consequences. Under city codes, it means an “occurrence which by reason of its magnitude is or is likely to become beyond the control of the normal services, personnel, equipment and facilities of the regularly constituted branches and departments of the city government.”
One could argue that we have been experiencing a local emergency for a long time. As counted in January, Los Angeles has the largest number of unsheltered homeless people — those not housed in any public or private facility — in America. Nearly 18,000 people — 69% of the homeless people in our city — lack shelter of any kind. This is far more than in New York (5%), Chicago (30%) or Houston (36%). About 70% are sleeping on sidewalks or in alleys, nearly half of them for the first time in their lives.