Congressman Josh Harder is hoping to combat California’s — and Turlock’s — growing homeless population by building a “bridge between Washington and Sacramento,” introducing legislation on Tuesday that likens the statewide issue to natural disasters like wildfires or floods.
Under the Homelessness Emergency Declaration Act, governors in states which have seen increases in homelessness would be able to request federal support for local and state initiatives aimed at combating the problem. The bill is modeled after the existing process for requesting emergency aid after a natural disaster, which Harder believes allows both the state and federal government to treat homelessness as the epidemic it has become.
“First, we’re treating this problem with the seriousness it deserves by calling it a federal emergency and second, we’re creating a framework for the federal government and the state to work together to get it done,” Harder told the Journal. “That mechanism for collaboration doesn’t really exist today, and that’s why you see President Trump and Governor Newsom engaging in a long battle of finger pointing. This is to try and get past that and try to make sure we’re bringing everyone to the table and addressing the problem.”
California Gov. Gavin Newsom and President Donald Trump have been engaged in a public feud over the state’s homeless issue for weeks, with Trump warning that the Environmental Protection Agency could look into San Francisco for polluting the sea with homeless encampment sewage, among other threats.
“We’ve seen the number of folks on the street skyrocket over the last several years and haven’t nearly seen enough attention or focus on it to solve the problem,” Harder said. “Frankly, my biggest frustration is that we’ve seen more shifting of the blame than we’ve seen collaborative approaches to getting things done.”
California saw a larger increase in its number of homeless people over the last year than all other states combined, and in Harder’s 10th Congressional District, the rate of homelessness grew by nearly 16 percent between 2017 and 2018. Turlock isn’t immune to the statewide issue, either: results from the 2019 point in time count found that 245 of Stanislaus County’s 1,923 homeless individuals reside in the city, which accounted for the second-highest rate of homelessness in the county behind Modesto.
“I’ve visited the Turlock Gospel Mission and they do an incredible job providing services, but there are a lot more folks on the streets of Turlock than the gospel mission has room for, and not everyone is a particular fit for their program,” Harder said.
It’s Harder’s hope that the Homelessness Emergency Declaration Act would help with this problem, allowing the president to declare a homelessness emergency after receiving a request from a governor of an affected state. Through the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other appropriate agencies, the president would be able to provide emergency assistance to the states, including resources and support that provide housing, emergency food assistance, transportation, mental health care and job training programs.
“Look at the wildfires we've seen throughout California. Every time, there’s a federal emergency declared. When people’s homes burn down, the federal government gets involved to help them get on their feet,” Harder said. “Shouldn’t we be doing the same thing for the thousands living on the street? Isn't that just as big of an emergency?”
The bill is supported by leaders at both the national and local level, including Barbara DiPietro, Senior Director of Policy, National Health Care for the Homeless Council; Barbara Kauss, CEO and Executive Director of Stanislaus Regional Housing Authority; Leslie Abasta-Cummings, CEO of Livingston Community Health and Executive Board Member of the Central California Partnership for Health and Bob Erlenbusch, Executive Director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness.
Harder hopes that if his legislation makes it to the floor of the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate it will be met with enthusiasm.
“I’m hopeful. President Trump has said he takes this problem seriously, and he tweeted just last week that if California wants to work with the federal government then he’s on board,” Harder said. “I’m taking the president at his word and presenting him with an opportunity that I hope is a bridge between Washington and Sacramento.”
In addition to emergency funding, Harder emphasized the need for more affordable housing and mental health care throughout both the state and District 10 — two of three provisions included in his overarching plan aimed at tackling homelessness, released Monday.
Harder’s plan is aimed at addressing common root causes of homelessness in addition to fighting the underfunding of homelessness prevention efforts through improving mental and behavioral health care services, building more middle class and affordable housing and, lastly, bringing more federal investments to effective organizations in the Central Valley.