On a chilly morning last week, a few members of Santa Monica’s burgeoning homeless population shouldered their belongings in hiking packs and sturdy duffel bags up to the second floor of the Main Library Branch. A short survey on highlighter yellow paper was their admission ticket to grab to a free cup of coffee and see the smiling faces of a handful of representatives from local social services agencies.
“We’re going to be open three to four hours this morning,” said Brian Hardgrave with the City’s Human Services Division as he poured creamer into a cup for a woman who had walked into the room. “Individuals can come and go as they please: grab a cup of coffee and talk to service providers about what they need.”
Hardgrave was overseeing the City’s second pop-up event at the library on Santa Monica Boulevard. It’s part of a citywide effort to get more homeless residents connected with the dozen or so providers that supply job training, public benefits, healthcare and more in an effort to get people off the street. The first pop-up in October even had a room for the Department of Public Health to administer vaccines for Hepatitis A and the flu.
Local shelters are filled to the brim, sending more people on the street. An annual count of the homeless in January found 581 people sleeping on sand and sidewalks, along parks and hidden in alleyways in this city’s eight square miles. The number was up nearly 40 percent over the previous year. Those familiar with the crisis say the face of Santa Monica is changing – most of those sleeping on the streets have been here less than six months. The homeless population nationwide is up one percent.
At the pop-up fair, Nick Bersentes was one of the new residents meeting the local service providers. Warm and articulate, Bersentes said he’s been sleeping in an alley just north of the Third Street Promenade for about a month and a half. It’s just the latest stop in the last decade he’s been homelessness, wandering from town to town and state to state.
“I’m actually enjoying being homeless right now,” Bersentes said. “I’m feeling like I’m in touch with the world.”
He came to Santa Monica because of a fond memory of his youth: eating lunch with his aunt on The Third Street Promenade and seeing the movie The Fugitive. That day, and thus the city, became a symbol for him of better times. In 2004, Bersentes was diagnosed with schizophrenia; he says it’s too hard to keep a job and juggle all the obligations that come with keeping an apartment and career. He came to the small resource fair to figure out how to collect his disability checks.
Other visitors were already familiar with the local systems. A young man with a skateboard tucked under one arm gave a hug to a representative from OPCC assuring her “You are a lifesaver. You put me in the right direction.”
“We really don’t want people to think they need to come to the library to get their needs met,” Hardgrave said. The idea, however, is to meet Santa Monica’s homeless residents in the areas where they frequent in order to get them the help they need.
Before leaving, the visitors filled out exit surveys. A brief glance through the messages found repeated complaints for “more work opportunities” and a need for hygiene showers.
“One guy did rave that Southern California is a heck of a lot better at this than Tulsa, Oklahoma,” said the volunteer collecting the green slips of paper.
In November, the City Council approved a series of new investments to address homelessness, along with a multi-department strategic plan. The plan includes coordinated outreach, new teams, and more resources at the public libraries.
One homeless man shook his head while hearing about the City’s efforts at the resource fair.
“I just heard they have coffee and I came here for that,” the man said while filling up a paper cup with Starbucks breakfast blend. “I think it’s all very good but they don’t have a lot of space for apartments. They’re all full.”
With a warm cup of coffee in hand, he picked up his duffel bag and walked out the door.