City Hall will prioritize mental health treatment and building new housing in its efforts to reduce homelessness.

City Council voted Tuesday to follow a four-pronged strategy to address homelessness that staff recommended, emphasizing the City should explore opening a behavioral health center and operating a van for field-based mental health services, create permanent supportive housing for homeless Santa Monica and develop a cohesive homelessness strategy with neighboring communities.

The “four pillars” approach also aims to expand homelessness prevention efforts, such as a program that provides rent assistance to low-income seniors, and commit funding for the City’s new C3 and HMST teams, which connect people on the street with housing and services.

Santa Monica’s homeless population jumped 26 percent between 2016 and 2017 but grew by four percent in 2018 and three percent in 2019, according to annual Homeless Count data. Despite slowing population growth, the city’s police and fire departments report they are dealing with the mental health and substance abuse problems of homeless individuals more frequently.

Mayor Gleam Davis said she thinks visible mental illness makes residents uncomfortable and the City should invest in mental health resources for that reason. Councilmember Ted Winterer said businesses have expressed interest in helping fund a van that would intervene in mental health crises on the street and urged staff to set the project in motion as soon as possible.

“When I speak with people around the community, the discomfort they feel with some of the people experiencing homelessness is because of the fact that they are mentally ill,” Davis said. “For people who don’t regularly work with people experiencing mental illness, that can be very uncomfortable. Addressing that mental health component has to be foremost in our minds.”

Council also expressed support for replacing Samoshel, a downtown homeless shelter that was built as a temporary structure 25 years ago, and potentially including the mental health center in the new facility. The City is looking to complete a new structure in about five years.

John Maceri, executive director of The People Concern, which operates Samoshel, told Council that the shelter was designed for a very different homeless population than the one it serves today.

When Maceri first joined the nonprofit in the late 1990s, 80 percent of Samoshel clients were dealing with mental illness or substance abuse, mainly in the form of alcoholism. Those clients would typically get sober, go back to work and rent an apartment, typically without rental subsidies. The remaining 20 percent needed lifelong support, typically due to disabilities, he said.

“Housing was more available and affordable,” he said. “Most of them could earn enough money to pay their rent.”

Today, Maceri estimates that 90 percent of Samoshel clients need additional support, mainly because more have disabilities and housing has become far more difficult to find and afford in Los Angeles.

“Many people can be self-sufficient without being self-supporting because they can’t afford rent in the Los Angeles market without some sort of subsidy,” he said. “We have more housing vouchers available today than ever before, but we can’t find units, so we do have people staying longer in interim housing.”

Maceri also addressed what he called an “orchestrated smear campaign” against The People Concern, refuting the allegations that some current or former clients have made about Samoshel over the past three years.

Several clients told Council in January that the shelter’s staff had neglected their health and safety, failed to place them in permanent housing and retaliated against them for speaking against The People Concern. The City investigated the claims and released a report last week that found Samoshel is operating in accordance with City and Los Angeles County standards and has a robust grievance process in place.

“We have never violated anyone’s civil rights, discriminated against or harassed anyone,” Maceri said. “Our vocal critics are housed and remain housed because of us, despite them speaking out against us.”

At the meeting, eight Samoshel clients told Council that the shelter and its staff saved their lives by providing medical treatment and stable living conditions. They called the facility a model for other shelters in Los Angeles.

Wayne Salters said the shelter’s staff got his diabetes and high blood pressure under control and provided him with a safe place to stay.

“The people at Samoshel brought me off the street and basically saved my life,” he said. “They come in with a smile every day and pat us on the back even if we’re not having a good day.”

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