Volunteers fan out for Santa Monica’s annual homeless count

By Gary Walker  

It was after 10 p.m. but the Grand Pavilion at St. Monica’s Catholic Church was a beehive of activity — a scene resembling a political war room in constant motion, complete with charts and speeches.

On Jan. 30, some 250 volunteers had gathered alongside police, firefighters and park rangers to prepare for Santa Monica’s annual homeless count, which helps guide city policies to combat homelessness.

“The count helps us know where our homeless people are. Doing it on the same night helps us to identify what our needs are,” Santa Monica Human Services Administrator Margaret Willis explained.

At 11 p.m., participants formed 70 teams and fanned out to all areas of the city, some working until 4 a.m.

Debbie Lee, vice president of the nonprofit business advocacy group Downtown Santa Monica Inc., has participated in six city homeless counts. This year she led a team canvassing a western portion of the city that included Santa Monica Pier and some of Third Street Promenade.

“What you see out here really touches you,” said Lee, whose team counted 16 people.

On Third Street, men and women slept huddled under blankets on benches along the promenade or pushed carts down Santa Monica Boulevard. On the pier, several others sought refuge from the cold night air as they nestled under benches, underneath the pier or in crevices on the pier’s lower deck, not far from a group of midnight fishermen.

In other parts of Santa Monica, homeless families who reside in their vehicles are more prevalent, city officials said, and many homeless people also sleep in alleys or rest in city parks.

Volunteers rarely interacted with the people they encountered. Back at the pavilion, training sessions included how to conduct the count without disturbing those who may be sleeping in a vehicle or encampment.

Santa Monica typically conducts homeless counts on the last Wednesday in January.

Last year’s volunteers counted 780 homeless people —up from 740 in 2011, but down significantly from 915 in 2009. In 2011, the effort logged 263 people sleeping on the street and 44 in cars. In 2013, there were 316 on the street and 57 in cars.

Final numbers for the 2014 count will be released later this month, Willis said.

Homelessness has been slightly on the rise in Los Angeles neighborhoods but declining throughout the greater metropolitan area, said Joe Colletti, who pioneered homeless counts in other Southern California cities and founded the nonprofit group Urban Initiative.

Outside of Los Angeles and Santa Monica, “the numbers show a significant downturn in many cities,” he said.

To combat homelessness, many cities have begun to implement a “housing first” strategy — reversing the historical “continuum of care” model by moving homeless people into housing prior to completion of social services programs.  Critics of the continuum model argue that it forces homeless people to succeed in provisional shelters and rehabilitation programs in order to qualify for housing, which often leads to failures due to lack of permanent housing.

Colletti attributes an overall regional decline in homelessness to housing first strategies.

“Municipal governments and counties are learning that housing people before connecting them with service providers is less expensive than the old method of providing temporary shelter first,” he said.

Santa Monica has included the housing first model as part of its homelessness action plans since 2009, said Willis.

“We have found that it is more cost-effective,” she said. “In the past, I think people have been resistant to trying something new like ‘Housing First’ because they think that people who are homeless have to ‘earn’ the right to have housing.”

Councilman Kevin McKeown said the homeless count will help city leaders decide which anti-homelessness programs to fund.

The count “gives us a crucial metric by which to judge the effectiveness of our various social service programs.  When we implemented housing first,’ which focuses on the most vulnerable people homeless on our streets, we were gratified to see that overall counts went down significantly,” McKeown said. “When this year’s count results become available, they will inform our budget and where we might seek new, innovative solutions along with continuation of what’s already working.”