In a community meeting organized by Promenade property owner John Alle, L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva was highly critical of the City’s approach to homelessness in the Downtown area and candid about what he would do differently.
He was joined on a panel by Lt. Geoffrey Deedrick of the Sheriff’s Homeless Outreach Service Team (HOST) and Pastor Ron Hooks of local homeless service provider West Coast Care. Councilmembers Phil Brock and Oscar de la Torre also attended the meeting and gave speeches on the conditions of safety, homelessness and cleanliness Downtown.
“It’s really simple: we need a clean, safe downtown Santa Monica from the Promenade to the parking garages,” said Brock. “Our city government in some cases has abdicated their responsibility to keep this area safe and clean.”
De la Torre said that the City of Santa Monica is “failing in many areas”, and when asked if he would support contracting with the Sheriff Department for homeless outreach services Downtown said, “I support any effective solution, so if that’s what it takes I’m open.”
Villanueva said he would be happy to deploy HOST deputies Downtown, if the City agrees to a paid contract. Although he deployed HOST deputies to the Venice Boardwalk in July without a contract, Villanueva said that conditions in Santa Monica do not currently require that sort of emergency intervention.
Mayor Sue Himmelrich did not attend the meeting citing legal concerns raised by the City Attorney about council members engaging in conversation with meeting host John Alle, who is involved in two lawsuits with the City over conditions Downtown and the demolition of Parking Structure 3.
“It was disappointing to learn of this last-minute meeting scheduled by Mr. Alle and Sheriff Villanueva,” said Himmelrich. “It’s yet another example of how misguided efforts distract from the City’s work to grapple with a very complex set of issues in a productive and meaningful way.”
Villanueva previously drew criticism from Himmelrich and the SMPD, when he toured Downtown in July without contacting the City or the Police Chief.
In Monday’s meeting, Villanueva heavily criticized the City’s strategies to combat homelessness Downtown, which include Downtown Santa Monica Inc.’s Ambassador Program, local homeless service providers and SMPD officers.
“Get rid of the ambassadors, you’re not fooling anybody, you’re not fooling the homeless, there’s no respect there,” said Villanueva. “That is $450,000 a month that is being literally wasted. You could set a bonfire with that money out there, it will have the same effect as the ambassador program.”
Villanueva also opposed the City’s plan to demolish Downtown Parking Structure 3 and replace it with 150 units of affordable housing, 50 of which would be supportive housing for formerly homeless individuals.
“That is about the dumbest idea short of invading Iraq,” said Villanueva, adding that affordable or homeless housing should not be located near to tourist attractions.
The brunt of Villanueva’s criticism was directed at City leadership, which he claimed is preventing SMPD officers from carrying out enforcement measures against homeless individuals.
“I guarantee you there are probably city level ordinances that prohibit certain activities, yet they are not being enforced by orders of the city leadership,” said Villanueva. “Santa Monica PD has the capacity, but they’re handcuffed by the leadership of Santa Monica.”
SMPD Public Information Officer Rudy Flores, denied this allegation.
“Yes, Santa Monica has its own municipal ordinances that our personnel enforce daily,” said Flores. “We have not been given any orders by city leadership to not enforce such ordinances.”
Flores said that while it is illegal to ask individuals to move from public spaces just because they are homeless, SMPD officers will enforce applicable city ordinances such as the ban on leaving property on the public right of way.
When asked what he would do differently to combat homelessness Downtown, Villanueva said his first step would be to build more emergency shelter capacity so that Santa Monica is legally able to move unhoused individuals under the Boise decision.
The Boise decision refers to a court case that homeless plaintiffs filed against the City of Boise, Idaho in which the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that cities cannot enforce anti-camping measures if they do not have enough shelter beds available for their homeless population.
According to City Public Information Officer Constance Farrell, Santa Monica already has enough shelter beds to enforce no-camping restrictions under the Boise decision. This is why SMPD officers are allowed to prevent unhoused individuals from building encampment structures in Santa Monica, while LAPD officers are not legally able to do the same in neighboring Venice.
SMPD is aware of resident complaints regarding Downtown safety and homelessness. Officers from the department alongside representatives from Downtown Santa Monica Inc. are hosting a town hall meeting to discuss these issues on Sept. 29.
During the Sept. 27 community meeting, Villanueva zoomed out from Santa Monica and critiqued L.A. County’s overall approach to homelessness. He said that the plethora of free services and politicians’ lenient attitudes towards people living on the streets lures individuals to Southern California, and that the status quo approach will only lead to a bigger crisis.
“They’re actually being attracted towards a perception of permissive laws that allows people to basically smoke dope 24/7, and the ability to get free food, clothing and shelter on demand, in great weather to boot,” said Villanueva.
Villanueva also criticized Los Angeles politicians’ continual push to build more permanent housing, saying that free permanent housing also attracts more homeless individuals. Villanueva instead favors utilizing more temporary shelters, safe camping sites and mental health hospital beds.
“Anyone who has the idea that they’re going to build their way out of homelessness is smoking the same stuff that the people screaming are,” said Villanueva. “Build it and they will come.”