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Frank Gruber

Do Santa Monica Streets Belong to Fewer People?

By Frank Gruber

On Friday when I logged onto The Lookout around lunchtime I saw the "NEWS FLASH" headline announcing an upcoming story about how Santa Monica's homeless population had dropped, and this caused me to swing into action.

No lie, but a few weeks ago I came to a realization as I walked on the Promenade, which I do nearly every day inasmuch as my office is on Fourth Street north of Broadway, that I was seeing fewer homeless people than I was used to.

I started asking friends if they agreed with me, and no one seemed to have a definite opinion. So I told myself I should do my own survey. But I never got around to it.

Until Friday. After lunch, around 2:30, I took a walk all the way up the Promenade, from Broadway to Wilshire, and as I walked I counted the homeless people I saw. Who did I count?

My criteria were the traits we know so well that identify the down, out and lost -- the leathery, sunburned skin; the bags; the ratty clothes; the vacant stare; etc. I didn't count panhandlers, unless they had other indicia of despair, because I've learned that beggars are not necessarily homeless.

I was looking for classic spaced out, mentally ill or alcoholic homeless people, and I counted eight. There was one about whom I wasn't sure. He wore nice clothes, and was clean and well barbered, but he also had an old cardboard box and a sleeping bag attached to a luggage carrier with bungee cords, and he was sitting on a bench looking aimless. I included him in the eight.

I never did a "before" count, but I've been walking those blocks for years, and I estimate that I would generally see in past years, on a sunny afternoon, at least eight lost souls on each block. Sometimes nearly eight around one cluster of benches. I would also see runaway teenagers, and they were all gone.

So what's happened? One interesting sign was that a social worker was interviewing one of the homeless people I counted, a man bundled up in many layers of clothing who sat on a bench just off the Promenade on Santa Monica Boulevard. The reason I knew the woman he was talking to was a social worker was that she was young and earnest and she had a clipboard, and I overheard her tell the man that she could give him an "outreach form."

They had a long conversation -- they were together when I walked north, and still talking about fifteen minutes later when I returned. I thought that was a good sign.

My count and my impressions are not scientific, and, when you get down to it, there are similar problems with the official homeless counts. As Julie Rusk, who is in charge of the City's homeless services, pointed out (see story), the drop in the Santa Monica's homeless population the County has reported may not have been a drop at all, but instead may be the result of a more comprehensive count that relied less on projections.

But I trust my impressions, and there is also the data that since the City initiated its Chronic Homeless Progam four years ago, 78 of the most hopeless homeless people on our streets have been placed in housing. Seventy-eight out of the seven or eight hundred who might be sleeping on the streets on any given night may not seem to a lot, but I don't doubt that I used to see many of those 78 on the Promenade.

I also attended the October 5 presentation by New York City's Common Ground organization to city officials and service providers that Anita Varghese reported on for The Lookout. I don't have much to add to that account of the meeting, but I'm still mulling over some of what I learned there.

First there was the point that when it comes to housing the homeless, it can matter more whom you house than how many you house. We who go somewhere else but for the grace of God tend to look at homeless people as some alien race, but of course they are people with their own ways and, if you will, culture.

When Common Ground first started applying "housing first" methods pioneered in London and other places to the Times Square area in New York, they found themselves housing people but not making a dent in the overall number of homeless in the area. The reason was that they were housing the newcomers to the area, not the chronic homeless.

The chronic homeless people -- "anchors," the social workers called them -- who had been sleeping in the same nooks and crannies for years, signaled safety and acceptance to newcomers, who looked to them for guidance to find good places to bunk down. It was only when Common Ground focused on the hardest cases did they see an overall decline in numbers.

It appears that Santa Monica and its service providers have learned the same lesson. But while they may have had success in downtown Santa Monica similar to that achieved by Common Ground in the Times Square area, there is little hope that the L.A. region will be able to replicate the success New York and London have had in reducing homelessness throughout their cities.

The reasons are politics and money. Both New York and London have centralized governments that can act decisively. Here, we have a distant and ineffective county government, with no political will to solve the problem, and scores of cities mostly trying to avoid their responsibilities.

Santa Monica is one city that has stepped up to the plate, but so far its efforts to get other cities and the county to do more, symbolized by its hiring of former County Supervisor Ed Edelman, have not produced results.

Then, of course, there is money. Or, more accurately, there isn't money. New York has built or has in the pipeline 36,000 units of permanent housing for the formerly homeless, while L.A. County is barely building 2,500.

So there is good news -- it is possible to house even the most lost homeless souls -- but the bad news is that most politicians -- and probably most people -- in the L.A. region are willing to continue to enable homelessness.

I suspect it has something to do with the weather. In New York, there is a "right to housing" law because in the winter people will die if they don't have shelter.

In L.A. they just get wet.

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