Taking a load off: A homeless man rests on the Third Street Promenade, a popular hangout. (File photo)

Driving through the streets of downtown Los Angeles last Tuesday, during a torrential downpour, provided a look at the human reality behind all the recent LA Times articles about the issue of homelessness in the face of one of the worst El Niño seasons about to hit the LA region.

Although some of the more fortunate had tents, more were seeking shelter under tarps, and some had no shelter at all from the rain. Their belongings were saturated, as were they. Several were wringing out their sheets and blankets as though there were any possibility of their being dried out in the open (wet) air. It seems impossible that anyone would be unmoved by this vision of human suffering, which, in many cases, will result in illness and even death.

In fact, a homeless woman did die from the elements on the streets of Skid Row last week. Her name was Barbara Brown, and she was 60 years old. She died without a tent, rain-soaked and wrapped in a wet blanket on a piece of plastic. We fear that this tragedy foreshadows what the next three or four months will bring for our most vulnerable community members.

The root causes of homelessness and the reasons it is increasing are many. But each homeless person shares one thing in common: the lack of safe, sanitary shelter. It is impossible to get one’s life back on track without a roof over your head. The shortage of affordable housing throughout LA County, particularly permanent supportive housing, is the worst in the country. Permanent supportive housing, provided by such nonprofits as PATH (People Assisting the Homeless) Ventures and Step Up on Second, offer permanent housing with social services aimed at addressing residents’ addiction and mental health issues and, where possible, providing them with the tools necessary to get their lives back.

We could walk away from this human problem by saying that Santa Monica has or is about to meet the housing production goals of the City’s Housing Element, or we could tell ourselves that many homeless people are beyond help and refuse shelter even in bad weather, but we know that these are cop outs. Santa Monica has a long and impressive history of funding social services, including those for the homeless, and affordable housing, from the days of former City Attorney Bob Myers feeding homeless people on the front lawn of City Hall to the attention our City Council has paid over the years to funding assistance for essential programs.

According to the 2015 homeless count, Santa Monica has 402 homeless people living on our streets and more residents in danger of becoming homeless through job loss, eviction, and the lack of housing alternatives for them. Although our homeless population is less than one percent of the total for LA County, these people are in our community, and we see them every day. They are our neighbors. Are we as a community willing to take responsibility for assisting people who are at a much greater disadvantaged than we are?

At its Jan. 12, meeting the City Council will be discussing housing funding alternatives and acting on whether to contract for polling of Santa Monica residents on these potential alternatives. We support the Council’s moving forward on this measure. We also encourage the Council to consider the allocation of General Funds for the development of affordable housing for low and moderate income people, including permanent supportive housing as a means to alleviate homelessness in our city.

We understand the difficulty of finding sites for this type of housing, but that should not stop the City from setting its development as a high priority.

Housing produced by Community Corporation of Santa Monica, our city’s biggest nonprofit affordable housing provider, helps meet a huge housing need in Santa Monica by providing affordable units for people making low wages.

Though the housing CCSM provides is absolutely essential to the economic diversity of our city, the nonprofit’s rent levels really do not work for the homeless and near homeless. Their housing does provide a stopgap measure for people who might otherwise become homeless. We need to focus on allocating a portion of our funds to extremely low income people and those with no income at all who may also need a supportive service housing alternative.    

Recent legislation authored by Assemblyman Richard Bloom, and incorporated into the State Budget Bill (SB107), will likely result in the infusion of millions of dollars to the General Fund over the next several years. This legislation has expanded the definition of debt owed to the City by the former Redevelopment Agency. We ask that the City Council request staff to provide an estimate of these new funds and that the City Council allocate the entire amount to the provision of affordable housing, including permanent supportive housing.

Nightly, hundreds make their beds in their cars, in our parks, and on our streets. They are mothers, war veterans, people with chronic mental illnesses, and people who may just need a little help to get back on their feet. Most of all, they are people and they are our neighbors. It’s our responsibility to lend them a helping hand.

The annual Santa Monica Homeless Count will take place on the night of Jan. 27, 2016.  We encourage you to join with the Santa Monica Police Chief, the Fire Chief and the Chamber of Commerce to walk the streets of Santa Monica to make this count as accurate as possible. The count is a federal requirement for receiving federal funding. No experience is needed since training will be provided. Volunteer at www.santamonicahomelesscount.com.

Leslie Lambert, Judy Abdo, Ernie Powell, Elena Christopoulos Carl Hansen, Craig Hamilton, Cynthia Rose, Jerry Rubin, Irene Zivi, Fred Zimmerman, Richard Brand, and Elizabeth Tooke for Santa Monica Forward. Read more columns at santamonicaforward.org.