Santa Monica’s homeless population is growing far more slowly than the rest of Los Angeles County, which spiked this year alongside other counties across California.
The number of people experiencing homelessness grew 12 percent countywide and 16 percent in the city of Los Angeles, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), which released the results of its annual homeless count Tuesday. After falling by 19 percent last year, the number of individuals on the Westside grew by the same percentage, the largest increase of any region in the county.
Santa Monica conducts its own count and recorded only a three percent increase in 2019, counting 987 people this year and 957 last year. Two-thirds are unsheltered.
Alisa Orduña, the City’s senior advisor on homelessness, said an investment of $1.4 million in 2017 has allowed the City to fund homeless outreach teams on the street and social workers in libraries who are in constant contact with each other and make decisions using the same data.
“If the police receive five calls for service from the same location, we treat it as a hotspot and address it quickly,” she said. “There’s a potential for that across the county.”
LAHSA counted 58,936 homeless individuals in 2019 and 52,765 individuals in 2018. Three-quarters are living on the streets. The same proportion have lived in the county for more than five years.
The homeless population of both Santa Monica and the county rose dramatically between 2014 and 2017. The trend showed signs of slowing or reversing in 2018, when the county reported a three percent decrease and Santa Monica’s population grew by four percent after jumping 26 percent the previous year.
But while Santa Monica was able to maintain that rate of growth this year, the county saw another double-digit increase.
Funding from Measure H helped the county house 21,631 people last year and provided 1,841 new shelter beds, but the region’s high rents still forced thousands into homelessness – a net increase of 6,171 people.
While homelessless is not purely an issue of affordability – in Los Angeles County, almost one in three homeless individuals have a serious mental illness or substance abuse disorder – the data points to a chronic housing crisis that LAHSA cannot solve directly.
A quarter of unsheltered adults lost their housing in 2018 and are experiencing homelessness for the first time. A third of households are at risk of joining them because they spend more than half of their income on rent.
In Santa Monica, about 13 percent of households are at risk of homelessness because they earn less than $50,000 a year and spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent.
Housing costs have driven spikes in homelessness among vulnerable groups in Los Angeles County, such as youth and seniors, and made it difficult to house chronically homeless people, who have a physical or mental impairment and have been unsheltered for at least one year.
In 2019, the number of people aged 18 to 24 experiencing homelessness rose by a quarter and the population of chronically homeless people jumped 17 percent. More seniors and families fell into homelessness – seven and eight percent, respectively – while there was no change in the population of homeless veterans.
The county needs 516,946 new affordable housing units to meet the demand for housing, according to LAHSA.
Proposition HHH, a $1.2 billion bond voters passed in 2016, is supposed to provide 10,000 supportive housing units, a small fraction of that total. No units have opened yet and the cost of building the units has far surpassed initial estimates.
Santa Monica has committed to building 140 permanent supportive housing units and is exploring replacing its largest homeless shelter, Samoshel, and building a behavioral health center.
But while most effort and funding in the region has so far been devoted to new housing and shelter beds, officials in the county and Santa Monica say a greater focus on preventing people from becoming homeless is urgently needed.
The City and county must find new ways to identify people at risk of becoming homeless, Orduña said. For example, hospitals include a question on standard forms that asks if a patient is experiencing domestic violence. They and other social service providers like schools and HR departments could include a question asking if someone is housing insecure.
“We would need to let them this is a safe place they can share that information and have systems in place to follow up with it,” she said.
Santa Monica is also exploring cash transfers to prevent homelessness with its Preserving Our Diversity (POD) program, which provides assistance to rent-burdened seniors. The proposed 2019-2021 budget includes $2 million to expand the program to 200 to 400 households.
“We could use new state funding around that concept of diversion,” Orduña said. “For that population a paycheck away from homelessness or months behind on their rent, we could supplement their income before they fall into the streets and find out what else is going on to stabilize them.”