By Mayor Ted Winterer
In recent months there hasn’t been a day in which at least one Santa Monica resident expressed to me concerns about our homeless population, whether by email, a phone call or stopping me on the street to chat.
My colleagues on the City Council and I are paying close attention to this issue – we see and feel the impacts of a substantially larger street population every day, just like everyone else, and reducing homelessness has become our top priority at City Hall.
The data is daunting. After reducing our homeless population by roughly a quarter over five years, we saw all that hard work undone in our 2017 count of unhoused individuals.
At the same time, the County of Los Angeles experienced a 23% uptick in its street population so that now there are 58,000 homeless persons in our region.
And despite the application of proven strategies to get people off the streets and into housing and services, an estimated 13,000 new people become homeless in LA County every month.
Simply put, local and regional resources have been overwhelmed by this crisis.
There are many reasons for this dramatic surge in homelessness.
Foremost is the steep increase regionally in housing costs at a time when wage growth has stagnated, so that many have had to make difficult choices between food, medicine, clothing and rent and thus have been left without housing.
Redevelopment in downtown Los Angeles has pushed many former residents of Skid Row into other communities.
There are other underlying causes for this tragic epidemic. We estimate 30% of our homeless population suffers from some form of mental illness, in many cases left untreated for years during a life on the streets.
And the methamphetamine and opioid epidemics have taken a toll on too many.
There is, however, reason to believe that our City and the County can turn the tide.
Voters in LA County approved Measure H in March, a sales tax increase which yields an additional $350 million per year for homeless services on top of historic spending.
Those resources are now being deployed to a suite of strategies to provide mental health and substance abuse treatment, temporary and permanent housing and other support services.
Likewise, voters in Los Angeles last year approved a $1.1 billion bond measure to house the homeless while our voters supported Measure GS/GSH to finance more affordable housing.
When I speak with our residents, most feel great compassion for those who live on our streets, in our parks and on our beaches and they want us to do more to help those less fortunate than many of us.
Others are less forgiving, as they see our public spaces as having been taken hostage by undesirables with bad intentions, and would like City Hall to employ punitive measures which push the limits of civil liberties.
The truth likely lands somewhere between these two perspectives: many on our streets have fallen through a frayed and inadequate social safety net, but there’s no denying that the tenor of interaction with a portion of our homeless has become increasingly intimidating.
Just recently at one of our community meetings a father tearfully told us of having to intercede to protect his young son from an attempted assault by an unstable homeless man.
While the data shows most homeless persons do not commit crimes and those who do generally perpetrate offenses against other homeless, these sorts of incidents have created widespread fear and anxiety among many residents.
So, our response at City Hall is to relentlessly engage our homeless population in both a compassionate and a constitutional manner.
Every police officer, firefighter or social worker who encounters someone living on our streets will seek to guide that person into proven supportive services: while offers of assistance may be denied multiple times, we know that persistence will eventually pay off and individuals will accept help.
And we will use data about the outcome of these interactions to measure the success of strategies. At the same time, we are committed to making all of the public once again feel safe in public spaces in a legal manner which respects individual rights.
In short, we will try to shelter those who need homes while making our streets safer for both the housed and the unhoused.
So what are the details of this plan?
First, we’re shifting our policing strategy.
Every SMPD officer will be trained to engage with homeless persons and every call to dispatch about homelessness will be addressed, whether a crime is reported or not (being unhoused is not in itself a crime, of course).
And we’ve increased the number of officers and hours of the SMPD’s Homeless Liaison Program, whose fulltime focus is our street population.
Two new Library Services Officers will be hired to ensure safe and respectful use of our libraries while a fulltime social worker will be deployed at the Main Library.
And the City Council recently allocated budget savings from the last fiscal year to hire a dozen outreach workers to respond to calls in our public spaces and to connect unhoused persons with services or with their families in other areas.
In February, we will announce a new Senior Advisor on Homelessness to coordinate both our City’s interdepartmental efforts and to collaborate with the County and other cities, as homelessness is a regional crisis that can’t be solved without other agencies doing their fair share in addition to our local endeavors.
We’ve formed a Homelessness Steering Committee to coordinate and develop community-wide actions to address the impacts of homelessness.
And we’ve engaged the County Department of Mental Health to find ways they can bring their services into the field in Santa Monica.
Of course, the greatest need for the homeless is housing.
All sorts of research prove it costs taxpayers much less to provide temporary and permanent housing than to incur the burden of emergency room hospitalizations, calls to police officers and firefighters and other services.
To that end, City Hall offers rental assistance to those in our community in the direst need, so we can keep Santa Monicans in their homes.
And we will continue to produce housing for lower income individuals while encouraging our neighbors to build affordable housing at a pace commensurate with ours.
That said, the City of Santa Monica can’t end homelessness on its own. We’ll need the help of all cities in the region and the County. Most of all, we’ll need the active help of residents and businesses in our community.
We are not powerless in the face of this crisis. You can be a part of the solution, by donating generously to the agencies that provide housing and services (smgov.net/volunteer).
Volunteer for our annual homeless count January 24, 2018, as the data collected helps to inform solutions (santamonicahomlesscount.com). And advocate for efforts to increase housing and services for the homeless.
Finally, those of us who have lived in Santa Monica for a while will recall the last epidemic of homelessness during the 1990s, when the scourge of crack cocaine swelled our street population.
The public’s concerns about homelessness were just as intense as they are today, but we overcame that challenge. It will take time and patience, but we will likewise prevail again.