OLYMPIC HIGH SCHOOL — City officials accepted a proposal this week from a local nonprofit to help lessen its impacts on the neighborhoods and businesses around it, but residents remain skeptical that the agreement has any teeth.

Common Ground, an organization relocating to the Sunset Park neighborhood that provides free HIV testing and other services, promised to increase security and keep open lines of communication with its neighbors, who have expressed fears that the clientele will be disruptive and dangerous.

Residents were frustrated in their efforts to make the informal agreement legally binding, adding to the mistrust that built out of years of complaints about Common Ground that they felt were never dealt with.

The “good neighbor agreement” is one of the strongest that exists in the city, said Julie Rusk, human services manager with City Hall.

“The commitments that have been added are sound, reasonable, good faith efforts on the part of Common Ground,” Rusk said. “We think they’ve entered into that in good faith and have demonstrated a willingness to be flexible.”

Any nonprofit that receives funds from City Hall and works with homeless individuals is required to have a good neighbor agreement, Rusk said.

The stick behind it is the $90,000 the center receives from City Hall on an annual basis. If Common Ground violates its agreement, City Hall can shut off funding.

“If we don’t live up to what we say in terms of monitoring, we will probably lose our funding, and we don’t want that,” said Jeff Goodman, the interim executive director of Common Ground.

The document, called GNA 2.0, includes promises to install new security cameras, put the main entrance on the front of the building, add lighting, adjust its hours of operation and to keep an ongoing log of complaints.

Those complaints would then be acknowledged and addressed by a Neighborhood Advisory Council, the first of its kind in Santa Monica.

The group, to be composed of people living within Sunset Park and Ocean Park, will meet for the first time a month after Common Grounds new location on Lincoln Boulevard opens, and then once a month after.

Residents, however, felt betrayed when the group refused to make the agreement binding or guarantee that two of its most controversial programs — a county-funded needle exchange and drop-in center for homeless youth — would not be brought back to the facility.

An announcement two weeks ago that the Homeless Youth Prevention and Education program, or HYPE, would be moving to an undisclosed location in Venice was met with enthusiasm by residents, and seemed to be paving the way to an improved working relationship between Common Ground and its neighbors.

Common Ground has no intention of bringing either the needle exchange or HYPE to its new location at 2401 Lincoln Blvd. any time soon, but it couldn’t rule out the option, Goodman said.

“As a provider, you can’t just pick up a program and move it in a day,” he said. “This was a long process. What if something happens to that other partner or the other facility? We’re not going to abandon the program.”

The organization is haunted by a reputation for being unable to manage the homeless teens and other clients that use its services.

Residents and neighboring businesses have reported fights at its previous location on the 2000 block of Lincoln Boulevard, as well as human waste, used condoms and discarded needles.

Problems continued despite complaints from neighbors, and residents lost trust that either the organization or city officials would fix the situation.

At a final meeting about the group on Wednesday night, no residents spoke in favor of the agreement, said Zina Josephs of the Friends of Sunset Park neighborhood group.

“There is a lack of trust that the new agreement will be upheld,” said The Rev. Stephanie Jaeger of the Mt. Olive Lutheran Church.

Jaeger facilitated the three public meetings held between Common Ground officials and concerned residents, and felt that the sometimes-contentious process was positive for all involved.

“Through this process, Common Ground has been held to task for past problems and responded by developing better business practices,” Jaeger said.

It will take time for residents to believe that the organization will stand by its promises, Jaeger acknowledged.

“My hope is that when Common Ground reopens and the more problematic programs have been relocated and by coming to monthly meetings and the open house that Common Ground is hoping to hold, people will begin to get to know Common Ground’s work better and will discover how important it is within our community,” Jaeger said.


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