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Challenges abound for serving new wave of homeless individuals

Matthew Hall
Daily Press Editor

The City of Santa Monica has a robust set of services to help its homeless residents find services and while those programs were successful for many years a changing demographic among homeless individuals is challenging the established approach.
Officials including law enforcement officers, social service providers and civic leaders are now rethinking the City’s approach to homelessness and searching for ways to maintain successful programs while tackling problems associated with changing demographics in the homeless population.

At a recent meeting for DTSM merchants, Brian Hardgrave and Margaret Willis (both with Santa Monica’s Human Services Division) said the approach so far has been to funnel significant resources into the most at risk or troublesome individuals.

The approach has successfully brought some chronically homeless individuals in from the streets but the programs can only serve a relatively small number of individuals at a time.

“It’s not that we don’t know what to do, it’s not that there aren’t resources out there, it’s just that there aren’t resources in the abundance that we need them,” said Hardgrave.

Willis said she understands the frustration people feel when seeing more homeless individuals on the streets.
“When people feel like the city’s not helping, part of that is because we have to be specific about who we can serve, we have to draw a circle and that circle right now is just not big enough to encompass everybody,” she said.

Santa Monica recorded a 23 percent increase in homelessness last year and Los Angeles County was up 26 percent.

The Santa Monica increase came after several years of declining or at least stable numbers and Willis said the challenge is not just with increasing numbers, but also with the makeup of the homeless community.

“We’ve been prioritizing our limited resources for people that are most likely to die on the streets,” she said. “Our infrastructure within the city funded agencies is really about specific individuals that we know have high needs and who have been here a really long time and are known to all of you, sort of the familiar faces.

We’ve been good at that. But what’s changed in the last five years or so the population has become much more transitory, what we’re seeing is a shift from the faces you know to the faces you don’t know.”

She said as more individuals move through town more quickly, it has become more difficult to direct those individuals to services and track their results.

“What happens instead is there may be a person that comes into the city, creates chaos, generates a bunch of complaints from all of you all and other businesses and residents and then that person disappears,” she said. “So we have no ability to impact that person and help them get off the streets so that has been something we are struggling with.”

City Council will hold a workshop in November to discussion homelessness and Councilwoman Gleam Davis said she understands the need for new ideas.

“What has happened is we have seen a change in the nature of our homeless population so we recognize our programs and what we’ve been doing in the past, that for the most part have been very successful, need to adapt to the changing environment,” she said.

Davis said its likely a revised approach will require some reorganization but she also expects to hear a need for resources and for her, whatever is approved by council will be heavily influenced by what they hear at and leading up to the meeting.
“For me it’s important to hear from the community, residents, businesses and visitors, what their experience has been,” she said.

Davis said homelessness is a broad topic that reaches into many kinds of city services and the Council will need to hear from a diverse group of individuals in order to make an informed decision. At the same time, she said calls to various city agencies, including the police department, are also vital because those reports will become part of the data used in council’s deliberations.

While calls reporting success are useful, so to are calls describing unsatisfactory interactions and Davis said it’s important to build a comprehensive database.

“I just don’t want people to become discouraged and say the city doesn’t care and stop calling about things,” she said.
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