Santa Monica’s chronic homelessness interventions show promising results

By Gary Walker

As Los Angeles-area communities grapple with rising homeless populations despite increased government spending to combat homelessness, a newly published RAND Corporation study documents positive outcomes of a Santa Monica initiative that intensely focuses social services delivery on some of the city’s most challenging cases.

In short, the study finds that proactive social services interventions for the chronically homeless can greatly reduce the frequency of their negative interactions with police, fire and other emergency responders in the process.

From September 2016 to June 2018, RAND researchers tracked the efforts of Santa Monica’s city-funded Homeless Multidisciplinary Street Team, which includes housing and substance abuse case managers, a medical doctor, psychiatrist, physician assistant and a formerly homeless peer support specialist. The city contracts with local nonprofit The People Concern to operate the team, and The People Concern has a contract with Venice Family Clinic to provide field-based services.

“What makes this approach so unique is that it allows us to engage with the people with the most need and a population that is among the hardest to engage with. Less than 10% of the entire unhoused population in Santa Monica is chronically homeless” (meaning without shelter for at least five years), said Alisa Orduña, Santa Monica’s senior adviser on homelessness.

Santa Monica initially invested $600,000 in the program to target 26 homeless clients, followed by an additional $150,000 for the second half of 2017, and received $300,000 from Los Angeles County to cover the first half of 2018. The city has since made additional investments since last June to continue the program, serving 37 clients to date — 19 of whom have found housing and are no longer homeless, according to Santa Monica senior administrative analyst Brian Hardgrave.

During the first 12 months of the program, the total number of Santa Monica police encounters and arrests for street team clients declined by 53%. Client contact with fire and emergency room services showed significant reductions at the 18-month mark, according to the RAND study, which was sponsored by the city of Santa Monica.

“We estimate that the net financial savings to the city of Santa Monica on these decreased encounters is between $103,000 and $259,000 — an offset of 17% to 43% of the money invested in the team. If the current clients continue to experience a decline in encounters over time, then the savings will increase,” write the authors of the RAND report.

Hardgrave said street team clients have experienced a combined total of 300 years living on the streets, including one man who reported being homelessness for 28 years. Reaching people who have been unhoused for so long and who often have mental challenges requires dozens upon dozens of contacts over long periods of time, he said.

“There is one person who was engaged by our team 179 times before he got his first apartment,” Hardgrave said. “It’s about persistence and having a highly skilled professional staffing that is dedicated.”

The results of this year’s homeless count found a 3% increase in homelessness in Santa Monica from January 2018 to January 2019, from 957 to 985 people. Over that same period, homelessness in Los Angeles increased by 16% to 36,300 people, and homelessness throughout all of Los Angeles County increased by 12% to 58,936 people — making Santa Monica a comparative bright spot.

“Large cities such as Los Angeles and New York have created efforts to target individuals who are chronically homeless, but it’s unique for a relatively small city such as Santa Monica to undertake such an effort,” said RAND policy researcher Scott Ashwood, the study’s lead author.