By Jorge Casuso
February 24 – Despite a rapidly sinking economy, Santa Monica’s homeless population dropped to 915 individuals counted on a given night last month, down from 999 individuals two years earlier, or an 8 percent decrease, according to census figures released by the City Monday night.
Of the total individuals counted, 480 were on the street and 435 in shelters or social service agencies, City officials said. The greatest concentration of homeless persons was found Downtown. Only individuals, and not families, were found to be living on the street.
“We are pleased, but not surprised, to see a decline in street homelessness,” said Julie Rusk, Santa Monica’s human services manager. “The City has been working hard for a long time to develop a compassionate and effective plan to address the issues of homelessness in our community.
“Considering the current state of the economy, this reduction is an indication of the success of our efforts,” Rusk said.
Using a “rigorous methodology,” nearly 260 volunteers combed every street and alley in Santa Monica on the chilly night of January 27 and physically counted every homeless person found on the street, in a shelter or motel, and in every tent, car, box and RV in the city.
According to the homeless census mandated by Los Angeles County, of the 480 individuals counted along the 226 linear miles traversed by volunteers on foot and by car, 391 were physically found on the street.
Of the balance, 43 homeless individuals were found in vans or RVs, up from 14 in 2007; 27 were counted in cars, up from 24, and 19 were found inside tents and boxes, down from 51 two years earlier.
Social service providers predict that the number of homeless will grow as the economy worsens, noting that people who lose their jobs don’t immediately end up on the street.
Although there is pressure from foreclosure and job loss, most people don’t go dramatically from housing to the streets if they have a vehicle,” said John Maceri, executive director of OPCC, Santa Monica’s largest homeless service agency.
“We’re just starting to keep stats of people living in their cars,” Maceri said. “The next six to nine months will be the real bell weather.”
Sgt. Joaquin Vega, who is in charge of the Police Department’s HELP unit, whose six officers reach out specifically to the homeless, said he recognizes most of those on the street.
“They’re the same faces,” Vega said. “Every now and then a new face comes along.
“I haven’t run across anybody who says, ‘I’ve lost my home,’” he said. “I think it’ll take longer for that to happen. Most people don’t lose their homes and immediately end up on the street.”
Once the weather warms up, the City’s homeless ranks will become more visible as the 435 individuals counted in shelters start moving back on the streets, Maceri said.
“People’s perception of what is going on in the streets will change,” he said.
The 2007 numbers were adjusted to more closely correspond to the rigorous methodology used this year. By contrast, the count two years ago projected from the actual numbers counted, resulting in a total of 1,506 individuals estimated to be homeless in Santa Monica.
The 2007 count, for instance, projected an average of 4.8 individuals in every tent or box, resulting in a total of 314 individuals projected to be living in tents, boxes, cars, vans and RVs, compared to 89 physically counted last month.
The 2007 count also included a survey in person and on the telephone of individuals who may have had homeless people living on the premises. That resulted in an additional 439 individuals.
The lower count, City officials said, is a testament to the success of the City’s homeless policies, which shifted focus from providing temporary services to housing those who have been on the streets the longest.
The recent count will be used to gauge the success of an “Action Plan to Address Homelessness” adopted by the City Council last year.
The plan, City officials said, “aims to end the impact of homelessness in Santa Monica by engaging homeless individuals in services, assisting them to become stable and moving them off of the streets and into appropriate housing.”
Maceri praised the City’s new approach.
“The City, in collaboration with service providers, businesses and residents, has shown a continued commitment to finding compassionate and effective solutions to end homelessness in Santa Monica,” Maceri said.