Homeless Count Inspires Santa Monicans to Take Action

January 25, 2018
by Joseph Vandenorth

Homeless Count Inspires Santa Monicans to Take Action

Community members gathered in the pavilion at St. Monica Catholic Community just before midnight. Sipping coffee on what only a Californian could refer to as a chilly evening, the group grew quickly to over 250 volunteers. Not just the usual civic advocates, people came from a variety of places and occupations. Many drawn to participate in the Homeless Count for the first time. The ambience was anything but dour. These were people prepared to do something to help.

Several volunteers interviewed by CityTV were asked, "Why do you come out to count?" And, "What are you doing to help address homelessness?". Responses were across the board. A social worker shared how the Homeless Count helps them get more resources to help people. An affordable housing developer talked about their work to provide permanent housing solutions.

As the conference hall at St. Monica filled with hundreds of volunteers, opening remarks were led by Mayor Pro Tem Gleam Davis.

“This count is more important than ever," Gleam stated. "I hope tonight is the first night of many that you come out to do something to help. This is a community problem that requires community solutions."

California Assemblymember Richard Bloom praised Santa Monica for its long-time leadership in addressing homelessness while other communities turned their backs to it:

 "If every community tackled homelessness like Santa Monica, we wouldn't have a problem." -Assemblymember Richard Bloom

What's even more remarkable was the diversity of people called out to volunteer. City Manager Rick Cole surveyed the audience on how many people were coming out for the first time, the third, the fifth. Who came the furthest? The competition was between an Australian and a New Zealander. Rick decided to let them duke that one out.

Photo: Thomas Jorion

What residents may not understand is the multi-departmental, cross-disciplinary approach the City of Santa Monica is taking in its new Homelessness Action Plan.

Rick started by introducing staff from the City Manager's Office including Assistant City Manager Katie Lichtig. Then came the Human Services Division, including Setareh Yavari, Maggie Willis, Didi Mumford, and Brian Hardgrave, who oversee grants, outreach and other strategies in directly administering relief programs for homeless individuals—work that the City has invested more in than any other SoCal city of our size for decades.

Library Director Patty Wong joined the lineup. Santa Monica Public Library is a key part of the outreach strategy to connect homeless patrons who frequent the branches with critical services.

Public safety leaders like Santa Monica Fire Department's Julian Zermeno and Santa Monica Police Department's Erika Aklufi were called to join the front. SMPD's Homeless Liaison Program recently received more funding to expand its team of officers focused on direct engagement and support of the homeless population. 

This was all building to show the “all hands on deck” approach of the City’s focus on addressing homelessness as a strategic goal and top priority. With these internal experts and an extensive array of organizations on the front lines, it is important to have a leader to oversee Santa Monica’s extensive regional collaboration on homelessness.

Enter Alisa Orduña, the City of Santa Monica's new Senior Advisor on Homelessness who will join the City team on February 5th. Orduña is currently the Director of Homelessness Policy for the Office of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, a post she’s held since 2015. A Southern California native, she has been on the front lines of homelessness and social services for nearly two decades in Los Angeles and Philadelphia.

"One of the reasons I wanted to come to Santa Monica is that it is a city of innovation that has been on frontlines of homelessness for many years," said Orduña. "I'm not coming here with answers. I'm coming here as a connector to bring to scale the fine work that each and everyone here and beyond has been doing to address homelessness."

Alisa Orduña Photo: Jeff Snyder

"We are not going to solve homelessness in 8.3 square miles but we are going to make a big dent," Rick shared. "We are not waiting. We're going to spend the next 365 days with every school, every church, every person working on it."

Rick's promise was that the City and community will strive for "constant, proactive engagement" until a hopefully near future where "there are no homeless residents to count." 

A woman, Lydia, who experienced homelessness in Santa Monica and was able to find permanent housing shared what the process looked like. "Waiting can be uncomfortable, especially when you see others get housing," Lydia expressed. "I can't believe when I turn the key that this is my home. I want people to know there's hope out there for them."

Lydia recently completed certification to become a peer-support specialist and is leveraging her experience to help others navigate out of homelessness.

As we departed St. Monica, the group I joined ventured to the north end of Palisades Park. On a quiet night, a half moon hung over Santa Monica Bay with a brilliant orange hue reflecting on the water. We were joined by Deputy City Manager Anuj Gupta and SMPD Public Service Officer Carlos Villalobos as well as a resident from the Pacific Palisades who wanted to help her neighboring community.

Walking through Palisades Park, Officer Villalobos highlighted key areas to look for individuals, including openings in coastal brush and vehicles with blankets covering the inside of windows. The Homeless Count does not allow people to approach homeless individuals while sleeping, but simply record their location, whether they are in a vehicle or on the ground, and how many individuals are together—especially if there are children.

The area we were assigned to was north of Montana Avenue up until Adelaide Drive. What we found were a few solitary individuals sleeping on benches. We kept a respectful distance while doing our best to be specific with the information we recorded.

On our way back through the park, we walked Ocean Avenue to identify vehicles being slept in. A van here, a Prius there with the backseat full of belongings. There wasn't always someone in the car, though we did record when it appeared the vehicle was being lived in.

Shortly after 1 a.m., we completed our route and returned to St. Monica to submit our paperwork as well as the recorded map. Almost everyone was up later than they are used to. The energy was still optimistic. Even with the discomfort of seeing people's struggle up close. People knew they had done one thing tonight that would help someone down the road get access to services they need because of the data we collected.

Numbers for the 2018 Homeless Count will be released in the late spring. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires the count be conducted for all municipalities that seek relief funding for efforts to alleviate homelessness.

The Homeless Count is just one moment in time to get involved. The City of Santa Monica seeks partnership from everyone in addressing homelessness. We invite you to take that first step today to help

Thank you to our first-time and veteran volunteers who joined us for the 2018 Homeless Count and we hope for continued engagement on this deeply important work throughout the year.

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