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The City is about to enter its mid-year budget process and while Council will debate priorities for the limited resources available, the single best return on investment would be a massive increase in efforts to fight homelessness.

Covid-induced evictions haven’t even begun yet due to various moratoriums but they’re coming and we know that the vast majority of Santa Monica’s homeless population began their decline somewhere else. We’d be foolish to pretend we’re not going to bear the brunt of the coming eviction wave, even if it starts somewhere else. If we wait and try to react when the surge is upon is, it will be too late but by investing time and resources now, we might be able to head it off at the pass.

The city is making a good start by cutting five vacant positions from SMPD to fund a variety of services including homeless outreach, code enforcement, a 311 service and tenant protections.

However, the city should take all of those resources and center them in a new department dedicated to homeless services and prevention. The reality is a bulk of the work from some of these ideas are going to be homeless centric anyway.

How many of those 311 calls are going to be about homelessness? 50 percent? 70 percent? 90 percent? It’s going to be the vast majority. How much code enforcement time will be spent on blocking a doorway or trash in the public right of way? It was a very poor decision to eliminate the homeless advisor position during our initial round of budget cuts but now we can undo some of that damage by recentering our efforts in a dedicated pool of people who will develop skills and expertise in the area.

It’s literally impossible to arrest your way out of our homeless crisis and Santa Monica is in no position to actually fund housing. But we can connect people with existing services offered by the county and state. We can get people into the system to facilitate their VA benefits, Medicare, family reconciliation or other service that will get them off the streets.

There’s enough moral authority for this idea based purely on alleviating human suffering but there’s also an economic incentive. Every person that comes out of the cold is one more person that won’t die behind a dumpster but they’re also one less person blocking access to already struggling local businesses. By diverting resources to better connect them to existing services we can provide dignity to those most in need of care and help keep our local economy moving forward which is vital to stem the tides of future homelessness.

Much like Santa Monica’s City Attorney’s office has developed expertise in consumer protections that have become recognized statewide, a dedicated homeless services division could help nearby cities access services that keeps their residents housed and off the streets. Preemptively keeping people housed, even in cities outside our borders, would be of huge benefit to us because it’s vastly easier to keep someone housed rather than rehouse them once they’ve set up camp on the beach. Perhaps those cities could be enticed to kick in some operating funds and/or state resources could funnel through the office with the vast reserve of local knowledge.

Homelessness is going to get worse in this city and complaining about the causes isn’t going to do anything to help. We have to realize it’s going to cost us as residents something to fix this and if we don’t pony up the money now, the costs — fiscal, economic, cultural and emotional — will only get worse.

SMDP Editorial Board