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Homelessness, a challenge we can only solve together

January 24, 2020 12:45 PM
by Rick Cole

Homelessness, a challenge we can only solve together

Late Wednesday night, more than 300 volunteers assembled to be trained and to fan out across our community for the annual Homeless Count.  For more than a decade, this has been a critical measure of our success in dealing with the challenge of homelessness.

Implementation of deliberate strategy to focus on homeless individuals who were anchored in Santa Monica showed results in the counts beginning in 2010.  That year, the number of people counted fell from 917 to 742 – and for six straight years, that number held steady.  What that meant in tangible terms is that while new people appeared on our streets, sustained attention to familiar figures was paying off in getting others off the streets. 

Then in 2017, the numbers took off, zooming from 728 to 921.  It took local residents by surprise and many mistakenly attributed it to the opening of the Expo extension.  It gradually sank in that the increased numbers in Santa Monica reflected a countywide explosion in homelessness. 

Lots of theories have been advanced for the increase, but three factors bear mentioning.  First, the development boom in Downtown LA displaced many of those living in the sprawling Skid Row, sending deeply troubled individuals into other parts of the County.  Second, the impact of prison reform released tens of thousands of non-violent felons out onto the streets with little or no safety net to help them adjust to lives beyond bars.  Third, the rapid escalation of rents as the economy recovered from the Great Recession caused many low-income individuals and families to lose the roofs over their heads.

As painful as the new reality hit home in Santa Monica, the Council and the City were among the first local governments to pro-actively respond.  Well before the full brunt of the crisis hit, our City Council identified “a regional approach to homelessness” as one of their Strategic Goals and we hired Alisa Orduña as Senior Advisor to improve coordination of our efforts across departments and better collaborate with the County and neighboring cities. 

From the beginning, we in City government understood that the public sector can’t tackle this crisis alone.  Through the establishment of a Community Homelessness Steering Committee and the creation of the “We Are Santa Monica” campaign, we worked to mobilize resident, business, faith, civic and non-profit allies in the fight against homelessness.

Last year, we saw all our efforts begin to pay off.  Even as cities across the County and across California saw double-digit jumps in their homeless counts, Santa Monica’s count showed only a modest 3% climb, in part driven by counting more people living in cars.  Just as significantly, we saw a 19% drop in our count in the Downtown – the exact place where we’d concentrated resources over the previous year.

Too soon to know what this year’s count will tell us. Certainly, homeless numbers seem to be continuing to climb across the County.  But 2019 marked a year of clear progress in Santa Monica in some key areas, as outlined in a much more detailed update from Senior Advisor Orduña:

  • Street-based engagement is working and our two strategies -- for whom we outreach and where -- are delivering results
  • Real-time information sharing maximizes impact
  • Placing social workers in the library is a good investment
  • Adding officers to the Homeless Liaison Program team increased the capacity of the Police Department
  • City Council authorized new supportive housing and preserving existing housing through the Housing Trust Fund

As part of the “We Are Santa Monica” effort, we’ve emphasized three simple words of advice for those who want to be part of the solution: donate, advocate and volunteer.  There’s a fourth dimension that’s also making a difference: partnering.
Some successful partnerships from 2019:

  • The City partnered with Downtown Santa Monica to deploy Ambassadors seven days a week to make Reed Park safe and welcoming for all
  • The Jonathan Club partnered with West Coast Care to raise money to help reunite homeless people with their families
  • Librarians partnered with Library Service Officers to walk through our libraries to ensure our libraries are a safe resource for all patrons, whether housed or unhoused
  • The City partnered with the USC Digital Health Lab and tech start-up Akido to design an app for Police and Fire first-responders to connect those they encounter in the field with non-profit service providers in real time
  • The Homeless Action Network partnered with the Chamber of Commerce, hotels, businesses, and volunteers to assemble hundreds of hygiene kits to encourage those in need to connect with services 
  • The City partnered with LA County and the People Concern to deploy a second homeless outreach team at the beach

ABC News coverage of the 2020 Santa Monica Homeless Count (there is an opening advertisement)

The crisis in homelessness remains a critical challenge – and polls show LA County residents put it at the top of their list of concerns.  Yet despite the rising frustration, few have stepped forward to help, expecting government to solve this deep-seated and intractable set of problems. 

If you’d like to learn more or become involved, here are some practical ways to start:

  • Check out a video series offering best practices for safely interacting with people experiencing homelessness. We also have a toolkit with helpful tips.
  • Learn more about our four strategies for addressing homelessness.
  • Find a local service provider and volunteer throughout the year.

Homelessness affects us all -- what are your thoughts? Please send me your feedback

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