MRT on Point
By Mark Ridley-Thomas, PhD
Originally featured in the January 13, 2023 Praxis newsletter

Greetings in the new year of 2023!

In his Nobel Peace Prize address, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said of the poverty-stricken, “They are undernourished, ill-housed, and shabbily clad. Many of them have no houses or beds to sleep in. Their only beds are the sidewalks of the cities and the dusty roads of the villages.” 

As early as 1964 the unhoused had not escaped his expanding vision and his deepening agenda. And just a few years later (1967) he urgently insisted, “The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.”

By 2015 there was a statewide civic realization regarding homelessness confronting us anew. It was frightening and expensive —both politically and fiscally—the steady calls for a Declaration of A State of Emergency came from across the State of California.

Nowhere was this more true than in the City and County of Los Angeles. In 2016, the LA County Board of Supervisors by way of a unanimous motion appealed to Governor Jerry Brown and the State Legislature to declare A State of Emergency. The State

Assembly, led by Speaker Anthony Rendon, passed an appropriate resolution. The State Senate, then led by President pro Tempore, Kevin de Leon, refused to take up the cause, thereby leaving nothing for an already skeptical governor to reject.

Homelessness was simply not a priority for the Brown Administration, it wasn’t important enough to him. Then came Governor Gavin Newsom in 2018. This governor has made homelessness and housing affordability more of a priority than all 5 of his predecessors combined. This I know firsthand having served as one of the governor’s two co-chairs of his Statewide Homelessness Taskforce. Governor Gavin Newsom deserves a lot of credit, BUT he could not bring himself to declare a Statewide State of Emergency because his finance and legal experts strongly advised against it!

Before now the City of Los Angeles had failed to make a local emergency declaration and the same is true for the County of Los Angeles. Not until a new, energetic and forward learning Mayor displayed the temerity to face down all naysayers (including the LA Times) did things begin to move. Thank God for Mayor Karen Bass leading the way, for being determined and thoughtful, for rejecting excuses and for being impatient with lip service. She. Is. All. In!

We should be likewise grateful to Supervisor Lindsey Horvath for leading the Board of Supervisors to follow Mayor Bass’ instincts that the time to act is now. Dr. King speaks to us again: “There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we have the resources to get rid of it.”

Clearly, the storms that have wreaked havoc over the last few weeks make for an extraordinary tragedy and we must do all that is humanly possible to address the environmental, infrastructure and human toll taken on communities across the State of California. It just goes to show us that government can declare an emergency when it deems it important to do so. I just wish the same energy, intention and priority was applied to the “defining moral crisis of our time.”

It is time that we come to realize talking about the homeless crisis is plainly insufficient. Public discourse about urgency, tragedy and crisis have fallen short of where we can and should be in confronting this profoundly complex set of issues that we call homelessness. I maintain that the City and County must collaborate more, they must invest with strategic urgency in humane and lasting solutions, like housing coupled with deep social and health services.

Homelessness is an extraordinarily complex multi-factorial and multi-dimensional crisis. In my view, this is what gives rise to the emergency nature of the circumstance in which we find ourselves in California, and in LA in particular.

Traditionally, an emergency is defined as something serious, unexpected and dangerous. A crisis is often viewed as a crucial state of conditions packed with intense or stubborn difficulty, trouble or danger. Clearly such a condition or circumstance warrants decisive action informed by clear-minded judgement. It is the essence of intersectionality when we more fully come to grips with our collective unrelenting reality.

Let us take the words of Dr. King to heart:

“The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty. ”