Damian Dovarganes/AP

Local governments are trying to do the right thing, but don’t put it past them to do the wrong one.

Portland, Oregon, Mayor Charlie Hayes declared a housing emergency for his city on Wednesday afternoon. It’s an after-all-else-has-failed effort to do something, anything, about the spike in people experiencing homelessness. Nothing the city’s tried has brought down the number of Portlanders sleeping without shelter: some 1,800 people for the last two years running.

If and when the council approves the declaration, it will allow the city to “waive zoning codes, convert city-owned buildings into shelters quicker, and work with the county to ask Governor Kate Brown to declare an official state of emergency,” The Portland Mercury reports.

Portland is the second city to declare emergency in the face of homelessness, after Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti issued a “state of emergency” yesterday. If it’s catching on, that might be good news, says Megan Hustings, interim director for the National Coalition for the Homeless.

“We think it’s been a state of emergency for going on 40 years now,” she says.

But it might also give leaders more power to take extraordinary actions against signs of homelessness in their cities. In L.A., as Dan Denvir wrote for CityLab in July, the City Council approved two ordinances that enable the city to seize the property of homeless people. While San Francisco hasn’t declared any emergency yet, it has adopted an aggressive posture toward people suffering homelessness: Mayor Ed Lee promised to sweep them from the streets in the run-up to the Super Bowl in February.

Many more cities are responding to a spike in homelessness with measures that are just short of sounding an alarm. Earlier this month, Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser announced an expansion of the program for placing families in city shelters year-round, not just when the weather dips below freezing. Late in August, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio authorized a $10 million measure to provide rental assistance to people suffering homelessness.

Local governments acting by themselves can only do so much to stop the national scourge of homelessness. They are working under incredible pressure to prevent homelessness at a time when federal policies are actively exacerbating the crisis.

“We're at the point now where, federally, our housing policy is just trying to keep up. It's not doing anything to change the lives of folks who are experiencing poverty,” Hustings says. “Our advocacy at the federal level has been a project to prevent cuts. It's desperate. Our message is, ‘Stop cutting.’”

For reasons outlined by the mayors of L.A. and Portland, emergency powers will help these governments respond in a more agile way to specific crises as they emerge. Quickly re-zoning city-owned property to open and maintain a shelter in the face of an unprecedented winter storm, for example, is a great use of emergency powers. (Not an especially pressing concern on the West Coast, but a major worry everywhere else.)

Clearing away the possessions of homeless people under such a declaration, on the other hand, would be a power grab. Denvir has tracked the casual hostility that media and leaders, locally and nationally, express toward homeless people. Many local governments are trying to do the right thing, but don’t put it past them to do the wrong one.

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