Density: The vast majority of the homeless population are downtown. Courtesy image

On the night of Feb. 23, 2022, volunteers counted 807 people living homeless in Santa Monica, either in tents and makeshift shelters, vehicles, sleeping rough on the street, or within homeless shelters. 

This year’s homeless count numbers, the first to be released since 2020, show an 11-percent decline in the total number of homeless people tallied compared to the most recent data available. The 2021 count was canceled due to the pandemic.

In 2020, volunteers and Santa Monica city staff counted 907 individuals in shelters or on the street overnight; in 2019, that number was 987 and in 2018, a total of 957 individuals were counted on Santa Monica streets and shelters.

The 2022 numbers are the lowest since 2016, when just 728 unhoused people were counted during the annual nighttime census. From 2016 to 2017, numbers jumped 26 percent and have stayed in the 900-person range until this year.

But there is a caveat to that 11-percent drop.

“We know this is directly related to the significant reduction of available interim housing beds locally, and this is due to COVID-related public health capacity constraints,” Brian Hardgrave, a senior administrative analyst for the City’s Community Services Department, said during a press briefing as 2022 homeless count numbers were released. In other words, shelters are operating below normal capacity due to COVID-19 safety restrictions. A City chart showed the sheltered population had dropped about 30 percent from 2020 to 2022.

At the same time, this year’s numbers show a 36 percent increase in the number of homeless people sleeping in “vehicles/makeshift shelters” over the 2020 count, with 135 individuals found in those situations compared to 99 in 2020. 

“What’s important to note is that, while there was a significant local reduction in our shelter capacity, our coordinated strategies helped prevent a corresponding spike in our street count, or our unsheltered count,” Hardgrave went on to say. “And we also think this is largely related to — directly related to — the significant increase in interim housing options throughout the county.” Those included Project Roomkey, which offered hotel and motel accommodations for homeless people during the pandemic. Although Project Roomkey did not operate in Santa Monica, Hardgrave later said there was a smaller local version that housed about two dozen homeless people at one Santa Monica motel for much of 2020.

Santa Monica’s success rate moving individuals from interim housing to permanent housing was nearly three-fold higher than the countywide rate in 2021, according to City data. For fiscal year 2020-21, 44 percent of unhoused people in interim housing through Santa Monica’s human services grants program were moved into permanent housing, compared with 17 percent across LA County.

Total countywide homeless count numbers were not yet available; they are usually released in early summer. Without those data points, it is difficult to quantify how much of Santa Monica’s 11 percent drop in local homelessness was reflected in an increase in neighboring communities.

Each year, municipalities across the country including Santa Monica send volunteers out to the streets to do a point-in-time count of people sleeping outdoors. The annual count is used to help allocate funding and services, as well as provide the federal government with as accurate a number as possible for the most desperate homeless people — those who are sleeping outside in the winter time. While Santa Monica conducts its own count, all areas of LA County are tallied under the umbrella of LAHSA, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

“Our work is showing really positive impacts, despite, you know — there’s a lot of frustration and a lot of feelings about rises in homelessness,” Santa Monica Community Services Administrator Maggie Willis said, later adding, “We must continue to keep our eyes on the long term prize, though, in order to have long term results.”

Both Willis and Hardgrave acknowledged the community’s growing frustration with the local homeless population, and the perceived disconnect between the count and residents’ day-to-day experiences in some neighborhoods.

“We acknowledge that there are differences in the realities and the perceptions and experiences at night versus what folks are experiencing during the day,” Hardgrave said. “In the same way that our Santa Monica Community swells during the day with workforce and visitors, we suspect the same will be true among people experiencing homelessness.”

Hardgrave pointed out that the 2022 count was conducted at night, as it always is, and that, although some changes were made this year due to COVID-19, the basic methodology stayed consistent. This year, 250 volunteers participated in the February count.

A week before the City released its 2022 official homeless count numbers, local business owner John Alle, a vocal critic of the way local leadership has handled issues of homelessness downtown, began circulating numbers from a private count he conducted over two nights: one in November 2021 and January 2022. Alle said a total of 16 participants in teams of four replicated the City’s count, coming up with a drastically larger number: about 2,300 homeless individuals each night. Alle said he worked with an accounting firm from Century City but declined to name the firm.

“The rules that we were told, for the City, is: don’t get real close, and note if it’s a sleeping bag or a tent and guesstimate,” Alle said, describing why he believed his numbers were so much higher than the official count. “We got in their faces to find out … that’s how we do it. Because I really wanted to know, so we kind of did it in a more dangerous way.” Alle said his methods included providing crackers and water bottles to unhoused people before looking inside their tents and vehicles.

Alle’s count focused on parks and the downtown area, which city staff said saw a 14 percent increase in homeless people compared to the previous count.

Next Wednesday, May 11, City Council will hold a special study session to discuss the 2022 homeless count numbers and what is being done locally to both prevent new homelessness and diminish the current homeless crisis.

“While homelessness is a complex regional issue that cannot be solved by any single community, Santa Monica has an extensive history of deep investments and coordinated efforts to prevent and address homelessness,” a staff report for the Wednesday meeting described. “In March 2021, the City Council reaffirmed addressing homelessness as a top community priority. The City’s continued strategic investments – with a focus on permanent solutions – have helped prevent a local increase in homelessness as demonstrated by the 2022 Homeless Count results. Nevertheless, the impacts of homelessness are felt sharply on our streets every day.”