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(photo by Kibiwot Limo)

DOWNTOWN — The number of homeless individuals in the United States decreased slightly between 2009 and 2011, but service providers in Santa Monica are concerned about the impacts a continued recession, reduction in government aid and return of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan might have on that number.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness, a nonprofit, announced the reduction in its State of Homelessness 2012 report released Wednesday.

The paper compiles and analyzes homeless counts conducted across the nation in January 2011, and found that the national homeless population dropped a mere 1 percent from 643,067 in 2009 to 636,017 despite the continued weak economy and high unemployment rate.

It attributes that decrease to a $1.5 billion investment by the federal government in the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program, a program that prevented an estimated 1 million people across the nation from becoming homeless, as well as an emphasis on low-cost permanent housing for homeless individuals.

City Hall and the service providers it works with, like OPCC or St. Joseph Center, had similar or above-average success with the same programs, but with resources drying up and the economy continuing to struggle, city officials are just hoping to stay the course.

They’ll find out sooner than most — Santa Monica is already gearing up for its 2012 homeless count on Jan. 25.

Santa Monica officials choose to conduct the count every year to get a more accurate idea of how its programs are working, said Natasha Guest, an administrative analyst with City Hall.

In Santa Monica, two major efforts have focused on keeping people from slipping into homelessness through prevention programs and reaching out to the chronically homeless with permanent housing and case management services.

The prevention program, funded through that $1.5 billion, kept over 100 people housed by paying several months’ rent after tenants received three-day pay-or-quit notices, Guest said.

“When they hit the pay-or-quit period, we were able to come in and provide the funds for a certain number of months,” Guest said. “Then, we create a plan for them so they could continue to pay their rent when they were no longer receiving assistance.”

That meant connecting them to help they were already qualified for but might not know about, like food pantries or other benefits.

Though the program reaped great success, it was a one-time deal — the money ran out and no more stimulus is on the horizon, Guest said.

A second route credited in the report, permanent supportive housing, has been a Santa Monica hallmark since at least the mid 1990s, said John Maceri, executive director of OPCC.

Maceri’s organization has offered housing for the chronically homeless through the federal Shelter Plus Care program since 1994, and has a 94 percent retention rate compared to the national average of 65 percent.

That means a homeless person, once housed, does not end up back on the street.

That’s accomplished through constant support, with case workers there to make sure the rent gets paid on time and that the client gets the medical and therapeutic attention he or she needs, Maceri said.

If it sounds expensive, it is, but the cost of letting someone live on the street far outstrips what society pays to keep them housed.

“It’s a common misconception that leaving people on the street doesn’t cost anything,” Maceri said.

According to figures by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, keeping a single chronically homeless person off the streets can save service providers $27,504 each year by ensuring consistent access to what they need rather than providing help in a piecemeal way.

In a report before the City Council in October, Human Services Administrator Setareh Yavari told council members that one homeless man cost the city $50,000 for the 17 times that the Santa Monica Fire Department deployed to assist him when he was found drunk on the streets.

A third piece of the picture is the influx of young veterans returning from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

According to the report, veterans have a higher homeless rate than civilians, averaging 31 homeless per every 10,000 veterans versus 21 homeless for every 10,000 regular Joes.

City Hall defers to the West Los Angeles VA Campus for services for homeless veterans because they have more resources, Guest said.

For its part, VA officials say that they’re ramping up services to help prevent veterans from becoming homeless and to help the ones that fall through the cracks.

Six non-profits are helping to collaborate on services for veterans and their families that focus on prevention, rapid re-housing and help for the chronically homeless, said Michelle Wildy, chief of the Community Care for the Greater Los Angeles VA.

Employees perform sweeps through the streets to seek out homeless veterans and bring them to the VA for services.

Already, formerly homeless veterans are being tapped to help incoming veterans get jobs, even if they have suffered injuries or disorders that have diminished their capacity to work, Wildy said.

Those that need help immediately can call a 24-hour hotline at (800) 273-8255.

“We have grown exponentially, and we have great employees who are thinking outside the box,” Wildy said. “We’re trying to roll things out as quickly as possible.

With the component pieces to care in place, Santa Monica and its allies now have to wait and hope that the efforts have been enough to keep homelessness down for another year.

“We’re holding the course in our action plan, and we’ve been seeing big decreases,” she said, referring to the 19 percent drop seen in Santa Monica between 2009 and 2011, the years of the State of Homelessness study.

ashley@smdp.com

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