Homeless: City Hall is proposing new and expanded programs to handle the crisis. Clara Harter

In tandem with the release of the 2022 homeless count data, the City has unveiled a series of proposals to strengthen its fight against homelessness. 

While the number of homeless people counted in Santa Monica decreased by 11 percent since the last count in 2020—from 957 to 807 individuals—there is no question that homelessness and related crime and drug use continue to be a pressing issue in the city.

“We estimate 20 percent of the police department’s work is connected to individuals who are experiencing homelessness; It’s roughly 400 calls in any given week,” said SMPD Captain Tom McLaughlin. “It appears, at least from some of my analysis, that 40 percent of our arrests on a weekly basis do involve people who are experiencing homelessness, so the work in front of us is real.”

The staff report on the homeless count theorized that the decrease in overall homeless numbers could be related to the city’s robust response strategies and the fact that the city’s shelters were at limited capacity during the pandemic, which may have deterred unhoused people from coming to Santa Monica. Despite the overall decrease, there was a 14 percent increase in unhoused individuals observed in the Downtown and beach areas and a 36 percent increase in people living in cars or tents. 

The report also recommended a series of changes and expansions to the City’s homeless response systems. 

In the near-term, meaning the next few months, staff will return to Council with three budget proposals: expanding the SMPD Homeless Liaison Program Team, adding an additional multidisciplinary street team; and accommodating overnight intakes at the SAMOSHEL homeless shelter. 

A longer-term proposal concerns opening a behavioral health center on City-owned land, which would allow the City to address mental health crises in Santa Monica and reduce the need to transport individuals to psychiatric urgent care outside of city limits. Currently, SMPD officers are driving the majority of their psychiatric hold subjects all the way to the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance.

“Santa Monica remains committed to addressing homelessness, and we go above and beyond what other communities in the county do,” said Maggie Willis, human services administrator, later adding, “We are listening to hear the community, understand their frustrations, and we are working towards maximizing our investments and creating effective short-term and long-term solutions.”

With Council support, the three near term proposals will be included in the Fiscal Year 2022 to 2023 budget plan. 

The first suggestion is to expand the SMPD Homeless Liaison Program (HLP) Team from four ten-hour days per week to seven days per week. 

The HLP team typically consists of one police sergeant, nine officers and one Department of Mental Health Clinician who work collaboratively to connect people experiencing homelessness to appropriate services or alternatives to incarceration where applicable. It is currently operating with only six officers due to ongoing SMPD staff shortages. 

Nevertheless the team has produced strong results. For example, in 2021 the mental health clinicians completed 284 evaluations resulting in 170 linkages to psychiatric urgent care or hospitalization.

The second near-term proposal is to add a new multidisciplinary street team to help homeless individuals outside of the Downtown and beach areas where these teams are currently deployed. Multidisciplinary teams are made up of a variety of professionals with skillsets that can address the varied needs of homeless individuals. 

The City currently funds multidisciplinary teams run by The People Concern, which include licensed mental health professionals, housing case managers, substance-use specialists, licensed medical providers, psychiatrists and a peer with lived experience. 

“Last year, the three city funded multidisciplinary teams made more than 11,000 contacts with people experiencing homelessness in Santa Monica alone. They provided direct street based medical or psychiatric services to over 800 people. They placed 57 people into interim housing, and they placed 24 people directly into permanent housing,” said Brian Hardgrave, senior human services analyst. “Just by comparison the LA County funded E6 multidisciplinary teams on the Westside placed a total of 12 people into permanent housing last year.”

These teams currently operate in the Downtown and beach areas, and based off of their success, staff recommend adding a new team to address other areas of the city.

The third near-term proposal is to expand services at the SAMOSHEL homeless shelter, which is operated by The People Concern, so it has the capacity to intake clients overnight. Currently, SMPD officers and first responders are not able to bring any individuals to shelters outside of daytime service hours. 

In total these proposals would cost $2.8 million with $1.8 million for expanding the HLP team, $400,000 for adding a multidisciplinary team and $600,000 for expanding operations at SAMOSHEL. Staff is also requesting Council allocate $200,000 of federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to emergency eviction prevention legal services to ensure Santa Monicans can remain housed. 

The longer term proposal to open a behavioral health facility is meant to address the lack of inpatient psychiatric beds availability locally and the uptick in mental health crises experienced by both housed and unhoused individuals in Santa Monica. 

In the short-term, the City has funding to launch a therapeutic transport van in partnership with the Department of Mental Health that will respond to 911 calls for behavioral health crises. According to the staff report, DMH’s struggle to find people willing to staff the van has delayed its deployment.

“The city understands that antisocial behaviors in the community are really driving an increased fear and concerns in our communities due to the erratic behavior that’s caused, a lot of the time, by untreated mental illness and substance use disorder,” said Maggie Willis, human services administrator. “So to address these concerns, we’re developing short-term and long-term plans to fill some of the gaps in services and treatment and design new ways to deliver those services in a way that meets the needs of people who are experiencing homelessness.”

With Council support, staff seeks to issue a Request for Proposals for a vendor to produce a report into the feasibility of opening a behavioral health center with the intention of selecting a vendor within six to twelve months. The actual opening of such a facility would likely be several years down the road. If approved, the center would be funded in part by the $10 million in behavioral health grants that is part of the Providence Saint John’s Development agreement.