Santa Monica’s homeless population remains stubbornly flat

By Gary Walker

Despite progress in some areas, the results of the annual Santa Monica Homeless Count reveal a slight 3% increase in overall homelessness, from 957 people in January 2018 to 985 at the beginning of this year.

The number of individuals sleeping on the street showed an almost imperceptible 0.5% decrease from 542 to 539, but factoring in those found dwelling in vehicles or encampments resulted in an overall 1.2% increase from 646 to 654.

The number of people in shelters or emergency motel placements increased 2% from 294 to 300, while the number of homeless people in jail dropped from nine to four and the number in hospital care jumped from eight to 27 — a temporary anomaly due to new state hospital discharge protocols, according to city officials.

At face value, the numbers look basically flat. But their significance in relation to a $1.4-million increase city spending to combat homelessness will remain unclear until Los Angeles County Homeless Count totals are released in mid- to late May, revealing whether Santa Monica fared better or worse in relation to other Greater Los Angeles communities.

One bright spot was a significant decrease in the downtown Santa Monica homeless population. There was a significant 19% decrease in homelessness downtown and along the beach (from 167 to 133), according to Santa Monica Senior Advisor on Homelessness Alisa Orduña. She further clarified that beach area numbers remained relatively stable, suggesting most of the progress occurred downtown.

Orduña credited the Santa Monica Police Department’s Homeless Liaison Program (HLP), a task force linking homeless people the police encounter to mental health and social services.

“I think what contributed to the decrease [downtown] was the expansion of the HLP Team to eight officers, and the program was expanded from five days a week to seven days. We also added a clinician, a public health nurse, an addiction specialist, a formerly homeless peer worker, a housing navigator, and a visiting physician from the Venice Family Clinic,” she said.

Orduña disputed the notion that homelessness might have dispersed from downtown into residential neighborhoods because “they would show up in others areas of the count, and our street teams tell us that 70% of the people that they engage with they don’t see again,” she said.

During the March 26 Santa Monica City Council meeting, local leaders discussed continuing and expanding current strategies for combating homelessness. These include exploring the possibility of building a local behavioral health center, adding an additional 140 units of permanent supportive housing and considering new locations for an expansion of SAMOSHEL, the emergency and transitional shelter operated by social services nonprofit The People Concern (formerly OPPC).

Palisades Beach Road Neighborhood Association President Ron Miller spoke in support of the behavioral health center to address mental health and substance abuse, describing such issues as “the most challenging component of the homelessness challenge here in Santa Monica.”

Santa Monica Recreation and Parks Commission Chairman John C. Smith said he supports the city’s efforts to house its homeless residents, but in light of this year’s Homeless Count results believes it’s time for the city to reconsider some of its strategies.

“When the things we do prove less than successful, it is time to start considering that we try other things,” Smith told the council, challenging officials to commit to an ambitious goal of reducing homelessness by 10% each year.

“In the last year, immense groundwork was laid to re-examine the city’s approach, realign resources, expertise and effort to impact homelessness in our community,” Orduña said. “Our work shows that individualized and place-based approaches work, and that there is no one-size-fits-all answer. In 2018, we added a new team of outreach workers who made a material difference. Connecting people to housing and services takes time, coordination and focused resources, one person at a time.”