Just how many homeless are in Santa Monica? Determining the actual number of individuals is difficult.

A 1990 RAND study indicated there were 1,397 homeless people in our city. A city-authorized census conducted on Oct. 27, 1999 pegged the city’s homeless at 1,037 persons. The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) conducted a countywide census Jan. 25-27, 2005 and directly counted 1,192 homeless people. The figure was later adjusted upward to 1,991 to compensate for perceived shortcomings in the original count.

The Urban Institute’s heralded “Ending Homelessness in Santa Monica: Current Efforts and Recommended Steps,” published December 2006, referenced the 1,991 figure from the 2005 census and speculated there could be a total of 2,300 to 3,000 homeless here daily — in and out of services.

LAHSA’s 2007 census, Jan. 23-25, found 1,506 persons in the city. That figure was recently adjusted to meet the parameters of this year’s census methodology and revised downward to 999 persons. LAHSA’s most recent census conducted on Jan. 27, 2009 counted 915 individuals. City sources say this represents an 8 percent decrease from the adjusted 999 person 2007 count.

Counts are done at night when it’s easier to locate homeless individuals. While the Police Department’s Homeless Liaison Program (HLP) team can point out the nooks and cubby-holes where transients bed down after dark, transients are still overlooked including those who are inaccessible or on private property. Hundreds of persons in out-of-town cold weather shelters may not be credited as “Santa Monica homeless” even though they spend most of their time here and utilize our services.

Different counting methodologies, theoretical projections and partial counts have led to variations in the estimated number of homeless in Santa Monica in a given 24-hour period. This is also why a pinpoint accurate count is unobtainable. Still, it’s safe to say over the last decade, Santa Monica’s daily homeless population has been fairly constant somewhere between 950 to 1,200 persons.

Numbers also vary slightly from year to year for a number of other reasons — the economy, weather and even police activity in adjacent communities. Despite dramatically increased city spending, more resources and added manpower in recent years, we still have about the same numbers of homeless — but not necessarily all the same individuals.

The services and programs described in the “2009 Annual Review of the City’s Plan for Homeless Services …"before the City Council tomorrow night for review are impressive. The Police HLP team, Human Services staff and city funded service providers are working hard on life-changing programs to get people off the street. This includes rehabilitative programs, both reunification with family and services “back home” and into housing, safe facilities or supervised care, here.

There are still many service-resistant individuals — some with mental problems or addictions — on the street by their own choosing or “milking the system.” Others are hanging around for months or years waiting for free housing or, having applied for assistance, biding their time until welfare checks arrive.

Even with the new programs and efforts to secure housing as set forth in City Hall’s latest “Action Plan to Address Homelessness” adopted by City Council last year and similar “calls to action” in previous years, numbers have not significantly decreased over time. That’s because for every person who is sent “home” or who obtains housing, there’s someone else lining up on our doorstep awaiting services.

Case in point. One program, West Coast Cares (now an outreach contractor with the Police Department), alone has sent 570 people “back home” since November 2006. Hundreds more have obtained housing, yet overall homeless numbers don’t seem to be down 600 or 700 since 2006.

The city crossed the line between “helping our own” and attracting persons looking for handouts years ago. The needy and opportunists alike are enticed here with our envious array of services and expectations of a new apartment with an ocean view.

According to the “2009 Annual Review …” a total of 3,575 homeless persons were provided with services via homeless programs funded by the city in fiscal year 07-08. Santa Monica spent directly over $3.4 million for core programs alone, excluding police and paramedic services.

Now, with well over 95 percent of the city’s homeless from “out of town,” we’re on a treadmill, expending lots of effort and going nowhere. The big question is: In times of scarce money, losses in city revenue and trim-to-the-bone budgets, how long can we or should we continue this grand giveaway?

Also on tomorrow’s council agenda (Consent Item 1-I), $445,000 more for two consulting firms to continue supplying transportation planning and design services for Expo Light Rail, Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) updates and 20th Street and the Cloverfield Boulevard traffic modifications that Pico neighbors don’t want but City Council does. Additional consulting for the Planning Department? Tight Budgets? More gridlock? Can you say, “rubber stamp?"

Bill Bauer can be reached at mr.bilbau@gmail.com