Santa Monica City Council has prioritized the strategies it will use to address homelessness throughout the Westside, a region that is still grappling with a pandemic that threatens to put more people on the street than ever before.

City leaders would have typically completed the Point-In-Time homeless count prior to this week’s annual study session on homelessness, but Covid-19 forced the cancellation of the count so Council and the local community gathered via Zoom Tuesday evening for a four-hour discussion that concluded with Council affirming its intentions: to prevent housed Santa Monicans from becoming homeless; address the behavioral health needs of vulnerable residents; advocate for regional capacity to address homelessness; and maintain access to safe, fun, and healthy open spaces.

Council identified four policies for priority during the upcoming budget process including extending Emergency Rental Assistance to prevent residents from falling into homelessness, creating an alternative non-congregate shelter on City property, developing a behavioral health triage center and implementing a low acuity crisis response unit in the Santa Monica Fire Department.

“We’re here to discuss perhaps the single biggest challenge facing our community. Too many people in California, too many people in L.A. County and too many people in Santa Monica are living without shelter,” Interim City Manager Lane Dilg said this week. “Homelessness now impacts our daily community life in every possible way, and the pandemic has starkly exposed that addressing homelessness will be central to every aspect of our state’s and our local community’s economic recovery. We will not solve homelessness alone, but we must as a community believe that this is a solvable problem and approach it accordingly and with urgency.”

During the discussion, council also committed to continuing the work of its dedicated outreach teams and funding ambassadors in local parks.

Property owners have complained in recent weeks that Santa Monica is seeing more instances of people sleeping in public spaces than they did prior to the pandemic, and residents were eager to share their frustrations with the situation during the meeting’s public comment period.

Councilmember Phil Brock said recent reports make it appear as though the City is doing a great job.

“But from the outside, in the streets, our residents feel we’re still failing. So my question is… are we looking for different approaches as well, or are we stagnant?” Brock asked as he addressed concerns relating to a lack of public bathrooms, enforcement and other necessary resources.

Margaret Willis, a human services administrator who addressed Council Tuesday, said the issue isn’t the effectiveness of the city’s programs.

“I think the issue is scale in that we don’t have enough of anything; we don’t have enough multidisciplinary teams, as someone mentioned, we don’t have enough portable housing in order to place people who are moving officers around working on housing programs, we don’t have enough time for our facilities, you know, that we can take the 24 hours,” Willis said.

“So we’re overwhelmed?” Brock asked.

“Yes, sir,” Willis replied.

Brock added he and the residents who have contacted him aren’t concerned with the cost of programs.

“What they’re more concerned with, bottom line, is do they feel their streets are safe? Do they feel that trash bins on the Promenade and parking garages are locked? Do we feel, when the trash truck empties the bin at the end of the pier, a homeless person will fall out of that trash can into a sanitation bucket?” Brock said, mentioning residents simply want to hear the city is making an effort to address the problem rather than save money by worrying about costs.

However, the economic impact of COVID-19 has weakened Santa Monica’s budgetary reserves so it’s unlikely the City will be able to fund every possible program that could address the twin crises of homelessness and affordable housing.

As a result, Dilg said Tuesday, staff intends to return with a cost analysis in the near future that would allow Council to decide what projects will be worth enacting.

Brennon@smdp.com