Business owners continue to cite homelessness as a significant problem. Credit: SMDP Photo

Downtown retailers gathered this week to hear from, and criticize, local officials over what they describe as an ongoing crisis of homelessness in the city’s epicenter of retail and tourism.

A group of approximately 75 business owners and retail representatives attended a meeting with City Councilmembers, the Santa Monica Police Department (SMPD), and Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. (DTSM) and the mood was grim from the start.

“I’m from the King’s Head, we’ve been in business for 49 years and we pay city tax every month. I’ve been to many of these meetings and you’re not telling us anything. There’s nothing new happening today,” said Dympna Madeley, Manager of Ye Olde King’s Head and the adjacent British-themed gift shop.

Jennifer Taylor, Economic Development Manager for the City of Santa Monica hosted the meeting and said the meeting was one way the City is trying to respond to concerns.

“I know, there’s always a lot of questions about what the city of Santa Monica is doing about important issues like crime and homelessness,” Taylor said. “And so your being here is really an important step. Because we do hear your words, we hear your concerns. And this meeting is a perfect example of how we are trying to address them.”

Tempers grew worse when it was announced that despite an invitation to attend, no one from Los Angeles County was present and nor was any representative of the Metro. Many participants felt the train and its sporadic to nonexistent enforcement of rules was a significant factor in their ongoing problems.

“The Metro guy is not even here,” said Madeley. “My coworker takes the Metro and he said that the other day, for two days, there were six Metro police checking people’s tickets and if they didn’t have a ticket, they put them back on the train. How is that helping anything? They just get off at 14th Street and walk back down. Where are the Metro people? They’re not here,” she said.

Local officials sympathized with the critiques but said there were limits on their ability to address some of the key complaints.

“A lot of the Santa Monica municipal codes that we enforce on a regular basis are quality of life crimes, but there is something called the Constitution. And as much as I would like to have some more tools in my toolbox, there’s case law and there’s the constitution that make it difficult for us sometimes to be able to employ all the tools in our toolbox,” Jenna Grigsby, Chief of the Santa Monica City Attorney’s Criminal Division.

“Those who are experiencing homelessness have the ability to sleep in public places and we would like to regulate that. We do the best that we can to put certain parameters on that in terms of park closures, sleeping and lying in doorways, urinating defecating in public – there are some parameters that we can put on those. But at the end of the day, the courts have decided that those who are experiencing homelessness are allowed to sleep, they have the right to be able to rest in a public place.”

At one point, an unidentified individual at the back of the room asked, “Alright, we know what you can’t do, but what can you do?”

Grigsby went on to give examples of how business owners could help themselves, by putting up no trespass notices or signing up for the 30-day trespass letters as, she explained, that PD needs those letters on file in order to do their job.

“The other thing is, if you see something, say something I know we’ve all heard that expression, but at the end of the day, that’s how we report statistics,” she said.

The collective frustration went up a notch when the room was reminded of the new “zero bail” policy. Just one month ago, the Los Angeles County’s court system approved a new set of bail schedules aimed at releasing low-level, non-violent and misdemeanor suspects before their arraignment. The practical upshot of which is that if a homeless individual is arrested for a non-violent crime, they could potentially — and probably will — end up back on the streets in 24 hours.

“I rescheduled my morning to join this meeting and I’ve just got to say that I’m not even angry anymore, I’m disappointed. I’m disappointed that we’ve let the city get to how it is now,” said Peter Trinh, investor, proprietor and Vice Chair of DTSM.

“I’m disappointed that Downtown Santa Monica has to spend a couple of million dollars on a private security company, which when I joined the board of DTSM, I didn’t know I had to go and get a PhD in homelessness instead of one in economic development. I’m disappointed that every single time we have a conversation or a meeting about this, I actually go out and feel a little bit more disappointed.

“Cops are just deterring the issues. They’re there to deter a situation from happening. They arrest someone, zero bail happens, they get out, they deter it again, they deter it again, because unfortunately homelessness is like toothpaste right now, we’re just pushing it around,” Trinh said, adding that many of the service we rely on to deal with this have opening and closing times, but homelessness is a 24-hour problem.

Bizarrely, the deployment of private security firm Covered 6, due sometime in October, was only very briefly mentioned. Whether or not they will have an impact, be it positive or negative, still remains to be seen.

Scott fell in love with Santa Monica when he was much younger and now, after living and working in five different countries, he has returned. He's written for the likes of the FT, NBC, the BBC and CNN.