While all Santa Monicans may not agree on how to solve the city’s ongoing homeless crisis, a handful of residents — agreeable and not — went to see some of the current programs designed to tackle the problem.

The Santa Monica Homelessness Steering Committee held its first “Coffee, Conversation and Change” event Nov. 2, an initiative meant to spark an open conversation amongst residents and attempt to demystify homelessness and its accompanying challenges and stereotypes.

Upwards of two dozen residents attended the event to learn more about efforts at Community Corporation of Santa Monica and Step Up in increasing affordable housing and assisting the homeless.

Tara Barauskas, Executive Director of CCSM, led the meeting by briefly explaining CCSM’s mission and how they work in conjunction with Step Up to help combat homelessness; CCSM provides affordable housing in the city while Step Up provides a supportive housing component for clients, giving qualified renters access to case managers and social services.

Additionally, Barauskas attempted to demystify a belief she’s seen spread around the community that all homeless or those that have transitioned into housing are criminals, noting that crime in the buildings is low.

She added that most homeless individuals that transition into CCSM units or at Step Up buildings work, some with as many as three jobs.

Aaron Criswell, Step Up’s VP of Housing Services, added that stable housing and jobs have statistically kept homeless off the streets and away from bad habits.

For such a hot-button issue, the event remained relatively calm aside from a couple retorts sprinkled into the meeting.

One Santa Monica resident felt that CCSM encouraged transients from out of town to come to Santa Monica and taking advantage of affordable housing, taking precedent over Santa Monica residents that need it.

The same resident added that he felt the housing units built would add to Santa Monica’s congestion, noting “everyone wants to live here by the beach.”

Barauskas answered that Santa Monica residents are first in a very long line of applicants, noting that CCSM doesn’t place priority on certain professions. CCSM and Step Up said they will continue to find areas to provide affordable housing.

Many attendees left the event with no change in their thoughts and perspective on homeless efforts by the City.

“I feel the same,” Santa Monica resident Olga Zurawska said. “I’m familiar with how this works from the inside. I’ve been through the system and have a lot of friends I’m trying to help get housed or stay housed and a lot of what’s being said here is just PR effort on the part of the City. It’s a lot of fluff with no action.”

Jennifer Kaplan, a CCSM resident, said the organization changed her life.

Kaplan said she has a degenerative disease that’s “slowly turning me into a vegetable”. She said a cushy job in Silver Lake was lost due to her sickness and she was less than a month away from homelessness, what she says would’ve been a death sentence.

A friend tipped her off to CCSM, whose housing Kaplan says has bought her more time in this life.

“At least if I die, it’ll be on my own watch and not because I was homeless,” Kaplan said with a smile.

While Barauskas acknowledged she wasn’t going to be able to change anyone’s perceptions, she said people should get involved in various ways such as volunteering to at least get a ground-level view of the problem at hand.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever solve homelessness, but we’re going to try.”

angel@smdp.com

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