Santa Monica’s most challenging homeless residents have had fewer interactions with police officers, firefighters and emergency room doctors since the city invested in an outreach team that connects them to treatment and housing, according to a Rand Corporation study released Wednesday.
The study found that the group of 26 chronically homeless individuals were less likely to come into contact with police officers and firefighters after working with the Homeless Multidisciplinary Street Team (HMST), saving the city time and money. The people the team worked with have physical conditions, mental illnesses and substance abuse problems and have been homeless for 10 years on average. Their median age is 50.
“They’re the group that’s most visible in the community,” said Alisa Orduña, the city’s senior advisor on homelessness.
HMST launched in September 2016 and operates on a $600,000 annual budget. Los Angeles County supervisor Sheila Kuehl has also contributed $600,000 over the life of the program. The study examines the team’s impact through February 2018.
Before the team began working with the individuals, the Santa Monica Police Department spent about $8,600 annually on each individual and the Santa Monica Fire Department spent about $700. Between February 2017 and 2018, the departments spent about $2,500 and $370 per individual.
The total savings to the city offset between 17 percent and 43 percent of the cost to fund the team, the study found.
While the cost of the program per individual is relatively high at about $23,000 annually in city funding, lead study author Scott Ashwood said a population with such severe mental and physical illnesses and substance abuse disorders requires substantial investment. The majority of Santa Monica’s homeless residents need less intensive services, he said.
“It’s not as if you would need to invest as much as this to handle someone who is temporarily homeless because they lost their job and apartment, but six months from now will be employed again,” Ashwood said. “This population is much much more complicated and requires more effort and investment.”
Orduña said most of the individuals the team works with were homeless long before the city’s homeless population rose 26 percent in 2017. Individuals part of the seven percent growth in population over the last two years have fallen into homelessness largely due to economic hardship.
“This is a population that was out there before the current crisis,” she said.
The study identified the program’s greatest challenge as graduating clients to other support programs. The city originally had hoped to serve a new set of 25 clients each year but has so far served 37 in almost three years. Seven of them have transitioned out of the program.
Brian Hardgrave, who oversees the team, said it is difficult to both connect with individuals and find follow-up programs that will work for them. They also require regular support after they are housed.
“Before one guy was permanently housed and completed a substance abuse program, we contacted him 120 times in 18 months before he was able to move in,” said Brian Hardgrave, who oversees the team.
The Rand study recommends coordinating as early as possible with follow-up programs and collecting more data both citywide and regionally so HMST can track individuals across different settings and services.
HMST is planning to improve data collection and coordination with other city agencies, Orduña said. But unlike the C3 team, which works with homeless individuals downtown, the city isn’t planning to work with a larger group – mainly because those who make frequent contact with police officers, firefighters and emergency room doctors are a fraction of Santa Monica’s homeless population.
“With our C3 team, we’re trying to scale up to a larger audience, but this is a smaller population with lots of barriers that requires intense engagement and coordination to reach stability,” she said.