Homelessness is clearly an issue which impacts the quality of life of everyone in Santa Monica, whether housed or unhoused. How did we get here and what is being done?
"Ted Winterer doesn’t pretend the city is a utopia nor is he attempting to scare voters with Trumpian fearmongering. His steady approach and practical ideas are critically important as the city faces its near and long term challenges."
-Santa Monica Daily Press
There is a positive trend to report. In our most recent homeless count our unhoused population decreased 8% from the prior year at the same time the LA County numbers increased 13%:
More later in this blog about our efforts to reduce homelessness in our city.
First, let’s start with some historical perspective. We saw a spike in our homeless population in the late 1980s and into the 1990s, concurrent with the height of the crack cocaine epidemic. The 2008 recession created another local surge in the unhoused, which City policies decreased by about 25% in successive years. Unfortunately, a 23% increase in the street population in LA County in 2017 wiped out that progress as we saw a rapid increase in Santa Monica’s homelessness.
Nor we were alone in experiencing such an increase. From 2017 to 2019 Orange County saw a 43% spike; Ventura County went up 45% and San Joaquin a staggering 70.5%. It’s a statewide tragedy.
Why the increases? First, housing costs in recent years have greatly outpaced wage growth, so lower-income individuals are increasingly challenged to put a roof over their heads: it now takes an hourly wage of $38 to afford the average rental in LA County.
Second, about 30% of our local homeless population suffers from some form of mental illness, in many instances untreated for years. The LA County Department of Mental Health provides these services in Santa Monica and our neighboring cities. It has been for years a centralized and frankly ineffective bureaucracy which is being reformed by my friend Dr. Jon Sherin. I happened to run into him at the beach recently and he reported he expects to shortly roll out a new approach to reaching those in the streets to provide treatment.
Third, substance use disorders, primarily alcohol, methamphetamine, and opioids, clearly have a huge impact in our homeless population.
So what did Santa Monica do when our homeless count increased?
1. Continued enforcement of our anti-camping ordinance, which makes it illegal to set up a tent in our public spaces. Ever notice how such encampments are prevalent in Venice, Hollywood and DTLA’s Skid Row but not it Santa Monica? That’s because we’ve carefully crafted our laws to be constitutional and conform to the decision of the Federal 9th Circuit court that cities in Western states cannot prohibit the unhoused from sleeping in public (https://tinyurl.com/y4585oo2). So while civil liberties allow the homeless to sleep in our parks during the hours they are open, for instance, we can require the removal of tents, unlike the City of LA which pushed too hard against constitutional rights and had to enter a legal settlement allowing encampments.
2. Added SMPD officers to our Homeless Liaison Program (HLP Team) and expanded operations to 7 days a week.
3. Created a Homeless Multi-Disciplinary Street Team, a team of specialists who locate and engage the most-intensive service users among Santa Monica's homeless individuals to help them obtain housing and address other needs.
4. In conjunction with the County, formed the C3 team (City+County+Community) to focus on Downtown homelessness. Its interdisciplinary staff includes behavioral health clinicians, case managers, substance use disorder counselors, and someone with lived homeless experience and subcontracts with Venice Family Clinic for medical services and a consultant psychiatrist to provide street-based evaluations and medication support.
5. Additional multidisciplinary teams funded through L.A. County Measure H and operated by local nonprofit St. Joseph Center are also at work in Santa Monica, engaging homeless individuals on the City’s streets and in public spaces.
6. Used data and technology to better track our unhoused population and better understand their interactions with City services, including an app which allows social workers and first responders to log encounters with the street population.
7. Our Fire Department piloted a Community Response Team which we hope to make permanent in the future.
8. Funded construction of 57 new units of permanent supportive housing (PSH) for homeless individuals and issued a Request for Proposals to build 40-50 on City land, adding to the 330 PSH units we already have. PSH providing on site services for mental and physical health issues, substance abuse disorders and job training has proven to cost taxpayers much less than delivering services such as EMT treatment and ER visits to those living on the streets.
9. When possession of meth or opioids was a felony, prosecutors could plea bargain a defendant down to a misdemeanor in exchange for an agreement to enter rehab. Now that the state criminal code deems drug possession is a misdemeanor, no such incentive to agree to rehab exists, so diversionary programs (also known as Alternative Prosecution Programs) are critical. So we’ve launched a “pre-filing diversion” pilot in which homeless individuals can have their misdemeanor charges removed in return for connecting with services.
10. As part of our reforms of the SMPD and reimagining public safety, we doubled the number of Neighborhood Resource Officers assigned to local beats and charged them with addressing quality of life issues. And we are exploring adding more staff from the County’s Department of Mental Health to work with our PD.
11. Increased funding despite revenues shortfalls for our Preserving Our Diversity (POD) program, which provides rental assistance to our lowest income seniors so they don’t have to make difficult decisions between paying the rent or paying for food and medicine. It’s much more cost-effective to keep people housed than to provide for them on the streets.
Can we do more? Absolutely. Here are a couple of additional possibilities:
• While City financial resources are constrained by the recession, seek private funding for a mobile psychiatric services van to bring mental health treatment onto the streets.
• Open a sobering center for short-term recovery from acute drug and/or alcohol intoxication as a less expensive alternative to jail or emergency room visits and as a pathway to longer term rehab programs.
• Since one of the greatest challenges to treating mental illness on the streets is resistance to service, advocate for changes to state conservatorship laws to provide care for those most in need: https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2020-08-20/op-ed-mentally-ill-people-often-dont-get-treatment-because-of-antiquated-law
• If we get a new Federal administration starting 1/2021, advocate for an allocation of more Section 8 housing vouchers for Santa Monica and the LA region with a higher cash value. During the Obama administration I noted to our Congressman Ted Lieu that the VASH vouchers for homeless vets did not cover the cost of housing in LA County and he successfully got the VA to increase their value here so more vets living in the streets could obtain housing – we need to do the same for the homeless who haven’t served in our armed forces. And, of course, current Federal policies have limited funding for housing and mental health services and have greatly contributed to income inequality – changes at the Federal level would go a long way towards reducing homelessness in our region.
There are no quick and easy fixes to homelessness – if there were, the City Council would have pursued them. However, our approaches have been working, albeit slower than anyone would like. Those of us who have lived in Santa Monica for a while will recall the last epidemic of homelessness during the 1990s, when the scourge of crack cocaine swelled our street population. The public’s concerns about homelessness were just as intense as they are today, but we overcame that challenge. It will take time and patience, but we will likewise prevail again.