The number of homeless people living in Los Angeles County fell for the first time in four years, showing a decrease of three percent in 2018, according to new numbers from the County’s annual count. During three nights in January, volunteers found 13,369 homeless people in shelters and 39,826 on the streets. Santa Monica’s homeless population increased four percent over the same time period, with 957 homeless in the city by the sea.

County leaders said recent efforts to curb the crisis were beginning to show real results, including voter approved Measure H and Proposition HHH. The County housed a record number of people in 2018, more than 16,500. The number of chronically homeless individuals fell by 16 percent to 14,389 and the number of homeless veterans fell by 18 percent to 3,910.

The number of people becoming homeless for the first time increased.

“This year’s Homeless Count shows us that we have made headway and are on the right track, though serious challenges remain,” said Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, whose district had a six percent increase in homelessness in 2018, with 12,136 people in shelters and on the streets. “We simply do not have enough affordable housing, and the County’s high rents, stagnating wages, and high poverty rate will continue to drive people out of their homes.”

The Board of Supervisors approved plans for $402.2 million Measure H funds for fiscal year 2018 May 15. The funding will be spent on prevention, rapid re-housing for those who lose their homes, outreach and strengthening the Coordinated Entry System, which tracks those using homeless services throughout the county.

There are currently 24 housing projects in early development because of HHH, the Los Angeles measure that authorized $1.2 billion in bonds to pay for homeless housing projects. So far, only one of those projects is on the west side, with 74 units planned for a special needs affordable housing complex near Santa Monica at 11950 W Missouri Avenue.

In November, the City Council approved a $1.4 million one-time investment in homeless engagement, including a new C3 team that engages with homeless people throughout the downtown area and Reed Park. On Thursday, that team was on the ground talking to homeless people in Palisades Park and near the Third Street Promenade, helping connect them with basic services.

“To go from homeless to housed takes a lot of steps, so whatever we can do to move them in that direction instills hope and movement,” said program director Zachary Coil. “A lot of homelessness is about stagnation.”

Santa Monica’s homeless count in January found thirty percent of the street population had been here for less than a month, with nearly fifty percent coming from other places in the county. Most people come on the bus (54 percent) as opposed to the Expo Line (13 percent). The outreach team says homeless people also utilize ridesharing services like Uber and Bird to get around.

C3 team member Felix Garcia, who was once homeless himself, says those without jobs or residences tend to wander throughout the region, making connecting them with services more difficult.

“I drifted from downtown Los Angeles,” Garcia said of his own homeless journey to Santa Monica in 2005. “I had no direction. I happened to get tired one night, got off the bus around 1 a.m., walked over to the bluffs and sat on one of the benches.”

Garcia says he was awakened by a police officer who noticed he was getting wet from some sprinklers. That officer connected him with OPCC (now called The People Concern) which got him a temporary bed and, eventually, permanent housing.

Now, Garcia is using his street experience to help others but says there’s a bottleneck to get the needy into beds.

The city of Santa Monica has failed to meet its affordable housing goals three years in a row, building only 13 affordable (deed restricted) apartments in 2017 and 100 market rate units. The City Charter requires 30 percent of new construction to be affordable. At this time, 586 new apartments are under construction, including 118 affordable units, according to city data. A city report on affordable housing production blamed the loss of redevelopment funds in 2012 for the failure to meet goals.

The People Concern’s executive director says that the county must scale up housing production this year.

“I think we’re all encouraged to see the numbers going down and that’s the direction we want to see,” John Maceri said. “It’s attributed to the strategic investment of resources and hard work across the county.”

In Venice, homelessness was down 18 percent, with 975 homeless people in the area. The largest percentage of the people living on the street and in shelters there were white (45 percent), men (70 percent) and only 25 lived in family units. The count found 18 children living on the street and 70 children living with families in shelters. The volunteers estimated nearly 30 percent of the unsheltered population had serious mental illness and 15 percent had substance use disorders.

This summer every Santa Monica address will receive a book of resources about homelessness along with the June edition of Seascape. The 13-page booklet includes tips on how to advocate for change and ways to get involved in tackling the homelessness crisis.

“Information can open the door to have meaningful engagement with our community,” said Chief Communications Officer Debbie Lee. “This toolkit provides our locals the latest on the City of Santa Monica’s efforts and how our community can come together to make a difference.”

The County will release neighborhood-level data on homelessness later this summer.

Kate Cagle

Senior reporter for the Santa Monica Daily Press