As Santa Monica grapples with an exploding homeless population that has impacted nearly every park, library branch and sidewalk, the City is moving forward with a comprehensive approach to homelessness that focuses on the individual.
“We’ll know people’s names,” City Manager Rick Cole told the Daily Press. “We’ll be engaging with them to find out what their needs are and see if we can meet those needs. Our goal will be to get as many people off the street as we can. That’s the proactive engagement piece.”
Dealing with a regional crisis like homelessness on the individual basis is no small task. It’s estimated about 58,000 people sleep on LA County streets, along riverbanks and in shelters (in comparison, the entire city of Gardena in the South Bay has about the same amount of people). Last January, volunteers counted 921 homeless people in Santa Monica alone (up 26 percent from the year before).
“There is no question we are seeing more people come from other places and not stay as long,” Cole said, acknowledging the correlation between the homeless boom and the opening of the Expo Line light rail to Santa Monica. However, the top city official denies any causation, saying cities with and without trains have experienced a similar increase.
“Anecdotally, we attribute some of that to the shrinkage of Skid Row in Los Angeles,” Cole said.
One of the cornerstones of the plan is an agreement with the County to bring a “C3” homeless outreach team to Santa Monica. The team members will be assigned to specific areas to identify vulnerable individuals and engage interventions to get them into stable housing, according to a staff report. The new team could be on the streets and in parks as early as February and the contract could reach $1.1 million for two years.
Police, Fire and Library employees are all looking at additional training in the next year on how to best deal with homeless individuals. An informal count found an average of 50 to 60 homeless people visit the Main Library every day. The City will hire two more Library Service Officers as part of an 18-month pilot, and a full-time social worker will be available for the next year to conduct homeless outreach and train staff. The City is also experimenting with pop-up resource fairs at the library that connect homeless patrons with local resources, including Hepatitis A vaccinations. Some of the training will be paid for by Measure H funds.
The City will also double-down on programs that are already working, such as West Coast Care, which helped nearly 300 people find permanent housing with family, friends or other programs this year, according to a staff report. Project Homecoming alone helped 181 people leave Santa Monica and get home to relatives or friends. Half of those people were still housed three months after leaving the city.
Even with the pilot projects, the City’s human services administrator says the community will need to donate time and money to get people off the streets.
“There’s just not enough of anything to help the number of people in need,” Margaret Willis said. City departments and resources dedicated to helping get people housed are quite simply swamped and strained. It’s a problem that has hit Santa Monica businesses – many of which rely on tourism – hard.
“Thank goodness we have the ambassadors,” said the CEO of Downtown Santa Monica, Inc., Kathleen Rawson. In the first nine months of the program, DTSM’s ambassadors referred 549 people to social services. The $1 million pilot program is contracted to last two years.
“We are facing some very new and challenging obstacles as it relates to managing anti-social behavior, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the late 80s,” Rawson said. The police department has acknowledged response time for lower priority calls has risen. Of about 10,000 calls per month, a quarter concern homeless individuals.
Willis acknowledged the stakes are high all around – homeless individuals who feel disenfranchised often resist help, especially when it comes to navigating the myriad of public, non-profit and religious services. The system can be daunting.
“When it fails, it fails epically and can be as traumatizing as the experience of living on the street,” Willis said.