“Is there a soup kitchen around here?” asked Ty, a homeless man on Fifth Street, who said he’d just gotten to Los Angeles from Arizona.
Ty, who declined to give his last name, had been in the Midwest before Arizona. Upon arrival in L.A., he heard that Santa Monica might be the best place for him. He wasn’t sure how long he’d stay but said he plans to head north along the California coast.
Ty said he was in his late 30s. Asked why he chose to come to Los Angeles, he responded: “Why not?”
Last month, when City Hall released results from its annual homeless count, which showed a rise in individuals living on the street, city officials mentioned a trend of more people like Ty — individuals who don’t stick around Santa Monica for very long.
“Generally, historically, we’ve seen that among younger homeless people,” OPCC Executive Director John Maceri told the Daily Press last month. “The younger homeless, they tend to be more travelers. Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, L.A., San Diego, is kind of the West Coast route and you see that a lot more among younger homeless folks but it seems to becoming more prevalent within the last year or so with the general homeless population.”
The OPCC is a Santa Monica nonprofit that provides homeless services downtown.
“With that population we’re doing a lot of redirecting,” he said. “Trying to figure out what brought people here, because sometimes it’s misinformation. Sometimes people are escaping from weather situations or bad home situations. Sometimes people think that because there’s a homeless service provider that means there’s housing automatically, which is silly of course because housing on the Westside is really, really expensive.”
Part of the movement, Maceri said, might have to do with redevelopment of different parts of Los Angeles County, like Downtown L.A. and Hollywood. Even construction of the incoming Expo Light Rail may be having an impact, he said, because there aren’t as many places for people to hang out along Colorado Avenue.
Movement of homeless people to the Los Angeles area may have to do with weather, he said.
“Anything east of probably Utah at this point, the weather is brutal,” Maceri said, “and very rarely do we have people die of exposure in California. It my get rainy, but people are not going to freeze to death.”
The Santa Monica Police Department doesn’t keep track of where homeless individuals are coming from or going for a variety of reasons, some legal and some logistical, said Sgt. Dean Oshiro, supervisor of the department’s Homeless Liaison Program.
“We generally focus our contacts around enforcement issues in geographical areas,” he said in an email, “so there may be homeless out there that we may not contact over any given amount of time.”
Like most of City Hall’s homeless resources, the liaison program focuses on the priority population.
“Generally, these are not people stopping through Santa Monica,” Oshiro said. “That being said, I can’t say if there’s been an increase or decrease, but we do talk to a lot of people who are in Santa Monica for only a short period of time, more so along the beach side of town.”
Westcoast Care, a private services agency that works along the beach and downtown and contracts with the department, reports the same thing, Oshiro said.
Does this make it harder on officers who may have less built-up rapport with longtime Santa Monica homeless individuals?
“No,” Oshiro said. “Our approach has consistently been a two pronged approach. (The first part is) outreach to everyone; trying to help them with a plan by finding out what their goals are. Determining whether or not they meet the priority population guidelines and then directing them to the appropriate resources. (The second part is using) enforcement as a tool to motivate them to do something different, like connecting with a service agency and/or family or friends.”
Aside from wild weather patterns across the country and development in the county, Maceri said the traveling homeless could be the result of a general lack of affordable housing.
“Homelessness is a lagging indicator of what’s going on in the economy,” he said. “We’ve come out of the great recession so it’s not the immediate loss of jobs and housing — it’s ongoing economic pressures for just finding a place to live that continues to be a challenge anywhere else in Los Angeles.”