While LA County homeless count numbers showed an 11% reduction in the number of unhoused people residing in Santa Monica between January 2020 and February 2022, up the coast in Malibu, the homeless population was reduced by six times that, with an overall 66% reduction in people experiencing homelessness in Malibu in those two years.

Malibu’s Feb. 23 point-in-time homeless count registered 81 people experiencing homelessness, down from a high water mark of 239 people counted in 2020. 

Malibu Public Safety Director Susan Dueñas said that reduction was a reflection of two years of work through Malibu’s contract with homeless outreach nonprofit The People Concern and LA County Sheriff’s Department HOST (Homeless Outreach Services Team), including clearing two major encampments and devoting resources to find temporary housing for displaced people.

Dueñas said that her team was “not surprised at all” by the latest figures, which she felt were accurate.

“There’s two main drivers. One is there was a very concerted effort last year to clear out the Zuma Creek area where a lot of homeless people were living, and also an area in Tuna Canyon, and we work with the sheriff’s department homeless services team in partnership to do this, and it was a long process. A lot of people got housing out of that,” Dueñas said. According to Dueñas, each encampment housed about 20 to 40 individuals.

“And then the other driver is our outreach team has done a phenomenal job of getting people into housing in the last year,” she went on to say. “Not all permanent housing, but at least temporary shelter. They’ve been getting vouchers. The combination of more people being moved into interim and permanent housing, and the fact that we cleared out the hotspots and we’ve maintained them, have really driven down the numbers. And so we’ve definitely — we see it.”

The encampment clearances were approved after Malibu saw a staggering 17 fires that began at homeless encampments from January through August 2021. Because of Malibu’s location in the Santa Monica Mountains, with Santa Ana winds and drought conditions, in the fall and winter the entire city falls under the CAL Fire definition of a Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone (VHFHSZ). Declaring all of Malibu part of the VHFHSZ allowed Malibu City Council to ban encampments anywhere in Malibu, since the risk of fire in such a zone could prove disastrous.

“Malibu bears this designation based on vegetation, its steeply sloping topography, its fire history, and fire weather factors, all of which increases the risk of wildfire from unpermitted heat sources,” according to a staff report prepared by Malibu Fire Safety Liaison Gregory Hisel. “Factors, such as wind, relative humidity, and temperature, combined with fuel moisture affected by extreme drought conditions, can produce dangerous fire risk to lives to the City, including its residents, visitors, and the unhoused population.”

Since the 2018 Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision Martin v Boise, which blocked municipalities from clearing homeless encampments if they do not offer adequate shelter options, encampment clearance has been difficult to navigate legally — especially in Malibu, where there are no shelter beds available. But the declaration, which lasted from late August 2021 through early January 2022, allowed the two major encampments to be cleared without a legal challenge.

At the next Malibu City Council meeting, scheduled for next Tuesday, Sept. 27, council is set to once again consider declaring an emergency that would allow any encampment to be cleared in the VHFHSZ — encompassing all of Malibu. 

From January through August of this year, five unhoused people living in Malibu attained permanent housing. During the same period, 24 individuals living in Malibu encampments were recorded as receiving “temporary housing” according to The People Concern data. But, since no shelters exist in Malibu, that means they are being moved to other communities.

Dueñas said the vast majority of Malibu’s unhoused people who are receiving services are getting them in the City of Los Angeles, not Santa Monica.

The latest The People Concern report, from August 2022, shared that a homeless individual in Malibu consented to move to a Santa Monica shelter, but many other reports stated that people worked with the St. Joseph Center or Venice Family Clinic.

“We’re … moving people into shelter and housing like anybody does,” Dueñas said when asked about the perception that Malibu homeless people are being relocated into neighboring communities. “And even Santa Monica, when they move people into shelter and housing, it’s not always in Santa Monica. It could be other places, as well.

“We go where it’s available,” Dueñas added. “I mean, we aren’t shooing people out.”

Dueñas also pointed out the fire danger posed by hillside encampments, as well as an uptick in people struck and killed by vehicles while walking in or along Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu. (Law enforcement believes up to seven pedestrians killed along Malibu’s 21-mile stretch of PCH in 2021 were homeless people.)

Looking into the future, Dueñas said she believed it was unlikely Malibu would see another major decline in its number of unhoused people over the next year or two. Her reasoning was two-fold — first, that the 2020 figure of 239 homeless people was an outlier that she believed had to do with a change in county overnight parking rules, and second, because moving people out of Zuma Creek and Tuna Canyon represented a one-off encampment clearance that could not be replicated.

“My prediction would be we’ll maintain [this number],” Dueñas said, adding she might get some blowback for that forecast. “We’ve always had a pretty consistent number of homeless people now, but we had one year where it went up … We tend to always have about 150, and 150 has always included the Zuma Creek and Tuna Canyon area, but so, by keeping those two areas clear, and if we maintain them, then I think our number will probably stay consistent based on historical numbers.”

emily@smdp.com