CITY HALL — Local government and nonprofit service providers are shifting course in their efforts to address homelessness in Santa Monica in response to federal, state and county policy changes that could push more homeless toward the city even as program funding becomes more scarce.
According to a city report released last week, over $460,000 have been cut from federal grant sources and a regional coalition of cities and Los Angeles County, called the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), has discussed cutting resources to the Westside.
At the same time, changes at the federal, state and local level have created a perfect storm that threatens to send more homeless into the area as resources are cut by releasing thousands of inmates with questionable housing status back into the community, forcing homeless individuals out of nearby areas like the Venice boardwalk and making it harder for the homeless to access services.
It’s all part of a continuing trend that has put a strain on the millions of dollars that Santa Monica puts toward homeless services each year.
“These people are not becoming homeless in Santa Monica, They’re becoming homeless elsewhere. There are many, many reasons,” said Natasha Guest, a senior administrative analyst with the Human Services Division.
The report is part of an annual review of City Hall’s Homeless Services Plan that’s required by a 1994 law meant to address public safety.
The plan aims to help homeless get housed and maintain that housing by becoming self sufficient through job training and other services. At the same time, staff is tasked with the responsibility of preventing an increase in the amount of city funds used to help the homeless and limit how long the same individuals can access city services.
That is becoming a more complicated task in the face of drastic changes at the state level, including the loss of the Santa Monica Redevelopment Agency in February 2011 and a state law, Assembly Bill 109, that resulted in the release of 9,500 inmates from local jails to make room for ostensibly more dangerous state prisoners in an attempt to reduce overcrowding in California prisons.
Redevelopment agencies were main drivers of affordable housing in California, a state which faces a chronic shortage of cheap housing stock, until the legislature, Gov. Jerry Brown and the California Supreme Court worked in concert to end the system to plug holes in the state budget.
Locally, the agency also funded housing vouchers for 80 of Santa Monica’s seniors and other vulnerable residents, a commodity City Hall has been scrambling to replace.
Similarly, AB 109 came in response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found conditions in California’s prisons constituted “cruel and unusual punishment.” The ruling led to the bill, also known as “realignment,” which took inmates out of the prisons and placed them in already-crowded county jails and other county facilities.
That’s resulted in the release of an estimated 9,500 former inmates into Los Angeles County alone. Officials estimate that between 1,000 and 1,200 of those people are now homeless.
Policy changes at the county level have not made it any easier for chronically or newly-homeless individuals to get the help they need.
In response to new requirements from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, the county coalition, LAHSA, is requiring central intake locations for homeless who want to sign up for services.
That’s a huge step backward from the “no wrong door” policy that existed in the past because it can involve homeless being turned away initially from providers that could help them, Guest said.
Instead, they would be sent to a central intake location where they would sign up for services only to be sent to a third agency that could actually provide the help. Today, a homeless person who needs help could show up at almost any agency and get an immediate referral without going to a special intake facility.
That additional step in the process makes it more difficult on a population that already struggles to get the help it needs, Guest said.
“It’s not consumer oriented,” she said.
According to the report released last week, city officials are recommending a two-step approach to focus diminished local resources on the homeless that are already in Santa Monica and coordinate with local nonprofits like St. Joseph Center and OPCC to bring outside money into the community.
It’s critical to make sure that Santa Monica government and its partners are working together to get as many resources as possible, Guest said.
“There’s a finite amount of funding now, and not any new funding on the horizon,” Guest said.
The economic and policy changes have made things harder, but the work is sustainable as long as organizations produce results, said Va Lecia Adams, executive director of the St. Joseph Center, an organization that focuses on providing permanent, supportive housing to homeless individuals.
“It’s all about putting that puzzle together, but it’s the one with 1,000 pieces,” Adams said. “We’re happy to continue to do that work.”
The report comes out in advance of the biannual Homeless Count mandated by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The most recent count turned up only two more street homeless in 2012 than it had in 2011.
That constituted a 34 percent drop from the previous year, and the perception of homelessness as a problem also dropped between 2009 and 2011, according to a citywide survey conducted by City Hall.
The 2013 homeless count will take place on Jan. 30 from 10:30 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. Those who want to help can sign up at smgov.net/homelessness.
In 2011, the Santa Monica Resident Survey found that homeless ranked in the top three concerns held by Santa Monicans behind the economy and traffic and congestion.
That still constituted an 8 percent decrease in the number of people who named it a problem in 2009, although at the pleading of the business community, City Hall and a number of partners moved to house 10 of the most visible homeless in the Downtown, according to the report.
As a result of the “Downtown Initiative,” five of those individuals are either housed or have an application pending, three are no longer in the area and another two are candidates for hospitalization, according to the report.