Homeless Post Gives Edelman Chance to Finish Task
By Olin Ericksen
February 14 -- To Ed Edelman, Santa Monica's new high-profile official on homelessness, getting people off the street is unfinished business.
When Edelman retired in 1994 from the County Board of Supervisors seat he held for more than two decades, the low-key consensus builder left behind a legacy of quiet accomplishments, according to those that know him best.
They include establishing a separate court for children and creating the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), the area's first regional homeless agency.
Homelessness, however, remained an elusive problem.
Creeping up in his Downtown district and throughout Los Angeles during his tenure, the problem has skyrocketed since Edelman made his exit from politics a decade ago.
Now Los Angeles County is home to the largest urban homeless population in the country with an estimated 88,000 people sleeping on the streets each night, according to a count released by LAHSA last month January.
"There's a lot of issues when you're out of office you wish you could bring a resolution to and the complex problem of homelessness is at the top of the list," said the 75-year-old Edelman.
On Tuesday night, Edelman -- who last month accepted a $200,000 post with the City to cajole and coordinate a response to homelessness on a regional level – will give the City Council a report on his progress and plans.
The newly created post -- which been called everything from a "liaison" position to a "secretary" post and even Santa Monica's "czar" on homeless – gives Edelman a second chance to tackle homelessness, but it won't be easy, the former supervisor said.
"I'd say I'm a representative of Santa Monica working on regional homeless issues, but calling the post a czar is wrong because I essentially have no power," he said.
Edelman has been labeled by the Los Angeles Times and the aides who worked with him a Southern California version of Jimmy Carter, someone who can negotiate, arbitrate and work behind the scenes to find a compromise to seemingly intractable problems.
But Edelman hopes to bring his unique style to tackling an issue residents consistently rank as the city’s biggest problem.
"Whatever style I have, I'm certain to be myself and be as effective as I can be," he said. "I don't have the power of a public office, but I can use my persuasion."
During his last six years as a negotiator and arbitrator with the Santa Monica-based RAND Corporation -- a think-tank that explores public policy -- Edelman has used his powers of persuasion to bring better governance to the Department of Water and Power and the Metropolitan Water District, and to provide better training for the Los Angeles Police Department.
He also arbitrated disputes between the Los Angeles Police and County to bring a state of the art crime lab to Calstate, which also trains students in criminalistics.
While he often works out of his home, his new quarters in the City Manager's office are no frills: no pictures adorn the walls, and the computer he swears he never uses sits lifeless on his barren desk.
About the only documents within view are two post-its with the extensions of Mona Miyasato and Stacey Rowe, two of four City officials dedicated to the issue of homelessness.
"I can call upon them and ask for their guidance and we have meetings periodically," Edelman said.
However, Edelman is not their senior. While Rowe and Miyasato will work on homelessness in Santa Monica and nearby communities, it will be Edelman's task to wrangle support from the federal, state and county governments, as well as make sure nearby cities, such as Beverly Hills, are also pitching in on regional solutions.
"Even though my job was created by Santa Monica, I'm here to work on a regional approach," said Edelman, who said he would combat the pervasive problem of cities throwing up roadblocks to the construction of new mental health facilities and homeless shelters "through leadership and education."
"We're going to educate those communities to make them understand that what they fear is not going to happen," he said.
Now that he has begun to settle in, Edelman said some of his first steps will be to work on increasing funding for homelessness; establishing community courts in Downtown Los Angeles and, perhaps, in Santa Monica, and reorganizing the very homeless agency he helped establish as a supervisor.
"I created LAHSA with Tom Bradley when Los Angeles and the County were fighting over which entity should be in charge of helping the homeless," Edelman said. "We got the City and County on the same path."
Recently, however, LAHSA has been embroiled in an accounting fiasco that led several non-profits the agency funds to draw down on new lines of credit until their funding was restored.
Most recently $2.5 million was discovered in the agency's account that could have been used to help homeless non-profits, and the Los Angeles Times recently published a story suggesting the agency's director, Mitchell Netburn, may soon leave. LAHSA officials told The Lookout Wednesday that Netburn has no intentions of stepping down.
Edelman believes it’s time the agency embarks in a new direction.
"We built a partnership, now 13 to 14 years later the agency has been under a lot of scrutiny and may need a change in governance," said Edelman.
"I will certainly look into making recommendations, foremost being that we make sure it's not just a pass-through entity for non-profit funding, but more of an advocacy agency."
The idea, said Edelman, would be to perhaps model the agency after the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA).
"It’s an opportunity to restructure it and re-empower it," he said.
Another cornerstone in his new fight will be to establish community courts, an idea he first began exploring during a recent trip to New York as part of Southern California delegation looking into solutions to homelessness. (see story)
Community courts place offenders according to the type of assistance they would need, including a drug court for addicts and a mental health court for the mentally ill.
"It's more encompassing than the mental health court," said Edelman of the proposed program.
Those arrested for misdemeanors, such as urinating in public or sleeping in doorways, would then be sent to the court that would connect them to services, he said.
"It would make petty crimes not petty," Edelman said. "It links the person to social services, lowers crime and stops the revolving doors."
However, New York is not Los Angeles, Edelman readily acknowledges.
The homeless population is spread over many more square miles, and there are several layers of government in Southern California, compared to New York.
"The system in New York has one government,” he said. “They have a strong mayoral office... and so far, we haven't had the political will to overcome the problems of homelessness."
Now Edelman hopes he can use Santa Monica to build that political will and accomplish a task he set out on several years ago.
"Santa Monica has been doing a good job on homelessness, but it can't do it alone," he said.
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