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Three women walk past a homeless man sleeping at Palisades Park on Friday afternoon. The City Council recently voted to extend City Hall's homeless action plan, which focuses resources on the most vulnerable, helping them get housing so they no longer sleep on the streets.

(photo by Brandon Wise)

DOWNTOWN — In a city that long ago developed a reputation of generosity toward the homeless population, given the moniker as the “home of the homeless,” a one-year-old approach to pay more focused and proactive attention to the issue has apparently led to noticeable results.

That approach — the Action Plan to Address Homelessness in Santa Monica — was developed and approved in early 2008 to essentially commit to paper some of the steps City Hall had already taken regarding the problem, refocusing some of its past strategies by aligning resources from the general population to what officials deemed as “priority” subgroups that needed more attention.

“We have had a history in our community of supporting and building a number of very successful efforts and yet we hadn’t folded it together into an approach that really articulated what we offered,” Julie Rusk, the human services manager for City Hall, said this week. “The plan was really an articulation of a new approach that we think is going to lead to more effective results for our community.”

The outcome over the past year — whether or not it can be directly attributed to the plan or not — is that progress has been made in tackling the issue, particularly in the area of securing housing and getting individuals off the street.

During the fiscal 2007-08 year, about 375 individuals — representing 10 percent of the population that sought social services — were placed in permanent housing, while another 20 percent received emergency or transitional housing. About 552 people, or about 15 percent, landed jobs that have led to self sufficiency.

More than half of the 131 homeless individuals identified in 2008 as being the most vulnerable have since been taken off the street and placed in either permanent or temporary housing. In January of last year, City Hall, in collaboration with social service providers conducted, a survey in Santa Monica and identified those they considered as being vulnerable and chronically homeless adults, placing them in a newly created service registry through which they’re assigned to an agency. One person has died since the registry was launched.

“We think it’s important for our community to understand that we’re not trying to bear the burden of this solely here within our city borders,” Rusk said.

In fiscal 2007-08, City Hall paid more than $3 million to fund seven core programs, including $75,000 one-time money to OPCC related to the relocation of its Access Center and $255,000 to the CLARE Foundation to assist the rehabilitation of the Women’s Recovery Center. In the same time period, the Santa Monica Housing Authority provided about $2.2 million in rental subsidies using federal assistance funds.

John Maceri, the executive director of OPCC, which runs a network of shelters and programs, said the plan has led to a higher level of collaboration between first responders, social service agencies and hospital emergency rooms. He sees the service registry as being one of the greatest success stories of the plan.

But he said it isn’t because of the plan that work is being done.

“The work happens on the ground,” he said. “I think what the plan has done is helped people from a variety of stakeholders focus attention and give a clear direction and I think that has been very useful.”

Officials also point to progress being made in addressing homelessness on a regional level. Earlier this month, Upward Bound House, a nonprofit organization founded in Santa Monica, broke ground on a new housing project in Culver City that will serve homeless individuals from various communities.

More than a year-and-a-half after a trio of dormant buildings in the West L.A. VA campus were designated for homeless services, New York-based Common Ground and developer McCormack Baron Salazar were selected to rehabilitate Building 209 to operate therapeutic and supportive services for veterans.

Rebecca Isaacs, the executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, said that one of the changes taking shape in cities across the county is the shift from short-term solutions to more long-term, including finding permanent housing.

“Santa Monica has been committed to that as well,” she said.

City Hall was among 15 cities who participated in the countywide homeless count in conjunction with LAHSA’s survey. More than 250 volunteers in January spent one long night physically tallying individuals living on the streets, finding an 8 percent drop in the final figure from the 2007 survey. The community of Hollywood also participated.

“(Cities) that opted in to me was a sign they were interested in taking ownership of the homeless in their own communities,” Isaacs said. “That is a different number from years ago when some communities said they didn’t have any homeless people.”

The Santa Monica Police Department has also seen improvements being made in their efforts to secure help and housing for homeless individuals. The department last year contracted West Coast Care to supplement efforts of the Homeless Liaison Program (HLP), which was established in 1991 to address community’s concerns regarding the issue.

The HLP team today consists of six officers who not only work to enforce the law, but collaborate with different agencies to help the homeless, said Chief Tim Jackman.

For the past year, a team under the direction of West Coast Care, which is operated by former San Francisco minister Ron Hooks, has gone out five days a week to areas in the city where the homeless typically congregate, talking to individuals who are ready to change their lives, Jackman said.

Since March 2008, the team has contacted more than 1,100 individuals. About 239 of them have either been placed in programs or reunited with families, approximately 70 percent of whom remain in homes.

The contract, estimated at about $250,000, was recently renewed by the council.

“This is the first real outreach we have,” Jackman said. “A lot of homeless providers are so overloaded that they don’t have time to go out and look.”

Change in the way the problem is viewed

In the course of crafting a marketing initiative that would advise visitors donate money to social service providers rather than directly to homeless individuals, City Hall decided to take a different approach earlier this year.

The change came after the consultant — GMMB — tested a number of anti-panhandling concepts with a focus group and found that the perception about the homeless problem had changed.

“They felt that there was a growing and significant perception of success in that the impact of homelessness in public spaces has decreased,” Danielle Noble, a City Hall senior administrative analyst for homeless services, said in February.

The new approach will focus on homelessness in general, informing the community about the successes of social service providers and educating on how to get involved, whether it’s donating time or money.

The view of homelessness today is mixed.

Heather Palleiko, a 34-year-old Santa Monica resident, said that at least in Reed Park, which is known for its congregation of homeless, the population seems smaller than three years ago.

“It seems like they’re moving more to the north,” she said.

Eva Borbasov, 34, who works as a nanny, said that she believes the problem is increasing.

“Everyone should have their freedom, but it’s not safe for us,” she said. “It’s easy for us to say, ‘OK, they’re homeless,’ but what would we do if we didn’t have jobs? Probably end up under a tree in this park.

“So I don’t judge, but it’s not safe.”

While much progress has been made, officials are quick to admit that the problem is far from solved and could get worse given the economic situation.

“The problem we’re facing right now in this economy is a great fear that we will see a lot more homeless,” Jackman said. “The best time to rescue someone from homelessness is when it first happens.

“If they become comfortable with the lifestyle (on the street), it becomes increasingly difficult to get them permanent housing.”

Maceri said that he has seen an increase in families seeking assistance, including visits to the food pantry.

“Some families are not yet homeless but are teetering on edge,” he said.

City Hall also faces the challenge of maintaining its homeless court, which was founded in 2007 to give individuals a chance to clear their records of petty crimes in exchange for entering treatment programs and receiving case management. The program was initially funded by the county, which provided $458,000 to pay for the program for 16 months through December of last year before adding another $180,000 to extend it through June. But with the economic crisis, there’s a possibility that the program might not continue next year, Rusk said.

“We’re trying to determine if there’s not continued funding available, if we can carry on the lessons learned through other existing projects,” she said.

The second year of the action plan, which the council approved earlier this week, will essentially be the same as the first, continuing to focus on the priority populations and securing permanent housing.

“It’s just extremely important that we continue to be more effective at getting those people help,” Rusk said. “What we learned and what we know is that the only way to do that is through very strong and effective collaboration.

“There is no one entity that can do it on its own.”

Ashley Archibald contributed to this report

melodyh@smdp.com