The City of Santa Monica hired a senior advisor on homelessness, Alisa Orduña, last January in response to a 26 percent growth in the city’s homeless population between 2016 and 2017. While that growth has leveled off – the population grew seven percent between 2017 and 2019 – residents are hoping to see the population shrink, not just stabilize.

Council identified reducing homelessness as one of its six priorities for the 2019-2021 budget cycle in January. The annual report Orduña and City staff will present at Tuesday’s City Council meeting includes several significant requests for funding, including replacing Santa Monica’s largest homeless shelter, helping low-income seniors pay rent and extending contracts with local homeless outreach teams.

The report breaks the City’s overall homelessness strategy into four pillars.

Pillar One: Prevent housed Santa Monicans from becoming homeless

More than 12,000 Santa Monica households are at risk of homelessness because they earn less than $50,000 per year and spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent. The City has traditionally focused on tenant protection programs and building more affordable housing to serve this population, but has recently started using first responders from the Santa Monica Fire and Police Departments to locate at-risk renters.

The Santa Monica Fire Department (SMFD) is now trained to identify people that are particularly at risk when they respond to medical calls, said Capt. Matt Norris of the Community Response Unit.

“We see the people who are most vulnerable before anyone else does,” Norris said.

Firefighters and paramedics now have a checklist of indicators that a household is at risk of becoming homeless, such as lack of food in the home, and connect them with resources if appropriate, he said. SMFD is planning to collect more data on those interactions, according to the staff report.

The City is also infusing at-risk households with cash. In 2018, it piloted the Preserving Our Diversity (POD) program, helping more than two dozen low-income seniors cover their rent.

Orduña said Los Angeles County data shows that the elderly are increasingly at risk of becoming homeless, and staff is requesting that Council expand the POD program using the Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

Pillar Two: Address the behavioral health needs of vulnerable residents

Locally collected data suggests that about two-thirds of Santa Monica’s homeless population struggles with mental illness, substance abuse or a combination of thee two, a proportion on par with the Los Angeles region.

Meth is of particular concern in Santa Monica: persons possessing meth increased by 152 percent since 2014 across all populations and homeless individuals accounted for 69 percent of cases in 2018, according to SMPD.

Untreated mental illness can also be induced by meth or other drugs, and SMPD places two people per day on average in psychiatric care. Homeless individuals also comprise 30 percent of SMFD paramedic calls, about a third of which are related to mental illness or alcohol.

“When untreated, these diseases lead to anti-social behaviors that negatively impact quality of life for the person and raise public health and safety concerns in the greater community,” Orduña wrote in the annual report.

SMPD has embedded two mental health clinicians in the field, one with a patrol officer responding to calls for mental health evaluations, and the other with the HLP team, a group of 10 officers that works with homeless individuals on the street or in jail. SMPD also launched a pilot program in late 2018 to connect people officers arrest with housing, services and behavioral healthcare before they get out of jail.

Staff are asking Council to increase funding for the Homeless Multidisciplinary Street Team (HMST), which launched in 2016 and has been partially funded by Los Angeles County. Other homeless outreach teams, such as the City’s C3 Team, focus on specific places. HMST, however, focuses on specific people who police and paramedics make frequent contact with.

HMST has placed 25 people into interim housing and 16 into permanent housing since 2016. In 2018, it managed a caseload of 20 people and engaged with 1,331 people, although it was not able to reconnect with most of them.

Staff are considering creating a behavioral health center in Santa Monica and will be asking for funding for a consultant to conduct a feasibility study on a potential project. The City is also trying to get private funding to purchase a van by October for the outreach teams to use for field-based mental health triage and crisis stabilization.

Local officials plan to advocate for a change in state policy to authorize SMFD to transport non-medical emergencies to mental health care facilities.

Pillar Three: Maintain equitable access to safe, fun and healthy open spaces

Santa Monica’s parks and beaches have become a haven for the homeless. Residents and the Recreation and Parks Commission link them to public health issues and crime and have called for City Council to step up police presence in the parks. Council proposed stationing hospitality ambassadors in Reed Park earlier this month and pointed to the city’s existing homeless outreach teams as a solution. 

Whereas HMST follows particular individuals throughout the city, the C3 Multidisciplinary Outreach Teams works with homeless individuals in downtown Santa Monica, includes Palisades, Tongva and Reed Parks. Staff is asking that Council continue funding for the team and potentially create a new team focused on the beach.

Other recommendations include expanding the HLP team, which has grown to 10 officers, hiring a social worker by April to conduct outreach to homeless individuals using the libraries and building a relationship between beachfront businesses and West Coast Care, an outreach organization that services the beach.

Pillar Four: Strengthen regional capacity to address homelessness

Orduña wrote in the report that Santa Monica, like communities throughout the region, should be using new county, state and federal funding to build new interim housing. Replacing Samoshel, a shelter on 5th Street and Olympic Boulevard that was built in 1994 as a temporary facility, is an obvious choice, said human services administrator Margaret Willis.

“Samoshel is a tent that was never meant to be permanent,” Willis said.

The City will be soliciting community input in shaping a new facility and finding an appropriate site for it, according to the report. It will likely take three to five years to replace the shelter, during which time the existing facility will be renovated.

At the regional level, the City plans to work with other Westside cities to create a shared homelessness plan and develop a state and federal policy agenda to be distributed to the community in the coming months. It will also launch an online homelessness training curriculum for residents this spring.

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1 Comment

  1. I, as a formerly homeless person, know more about homelessness than this person who has probably never been homeless in their life! I know first hand how hard it is to be homeless, and the lasting physical, emotional and psychological effects of being in that situation.

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