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Santa Monica Officials Explore Homeless Strategies at Washington Summit

By Olin Ericksen
staff Writer

March 21 -- City officials continued to look outside Santa Monica for solutions to homelessness, eyeing programs as nearby as San Diego and as far away as London at a national summit in Washington D.C. this month.

Held March 8 by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, the conference focused on best practices used in other cities as a way to help the nation’s estimated 750,000 people who live on the streets each night.

With roughly 12 percent, or nearly 90,000, of the country’s homeless living in and around Los Angeles County, the region’s representatives made their presence felt in the nation’s capital.

By examining what is working elsewhere, City officials said they hope to improve on policies to help the nearly 2,800 homeless estimated to live in Santa Monica and coordinate local efforts with those of the surrounding region, officials said.

"Santa Monica is not the only community productively rethinking expanded approaches to homelessness," said Council member Kevin McKeown who attended the conference with Mayor Richard Bloom.

"Again we heard positive results from new programs, mostly focused on providing real housing rather than ongoing supportive services for people remaining on the street," McKeown said.

Nearly three years ago, Santa Monica began implementing a strategy known as Housing First, which provides permanent housing in supportive settings for those who have been on the street the longest and suffer from mental illness or addiction, or both.

While continuing traditional services, proponents argue that targeting the "chronic homeless" may be more cost-effective for municipalities whose emergency services and hospitals are inundated by homeless individuals and families.

Nationally, the strategy has been working for a handful of cities, such as Denver and New York, Santa Monica officials present at the meeting noted.

Summit participants also heard how Great Britain is making strides in addressing the chronic homeless, known there as "rough sleepers."

"They've done a strategic outreach to rough sleepers," said Julie Rusk, the City’s Human Services manager, who also attended the conference. "The extent of the problem is certainly smaller, but they've made significant strides, well over 50 percent."

Rusk said Britian's homeless czar, Louis Casey, has taken an aggressive approach to reaching out to the chronic homeless, which Santa Monica officials and local non-profits are looking to mirror.

"It's quite focused and caring, but tough, and it really takes the approach of 'whatever it takes' to get them help," she said.

Other speakers at the summit included Dr. James Dunford, a physician who heads San Diego 's serial inebriate program, a model that offers repeat offenders the choice to sober up and receive services or face jail.

Santa Monica, which has a similar program, may look to San Diego to improve the local model, said Rusk.

In addition, public outreach and alternative giving strategies to address panhandling in downtown Denver could be imported to Santa Monica, Rusk said.

"Part of what they’re doing is looking into the results of their program to compare the levels of panhandling to last year when the program started," Rusk said.

Santa Monica's Downtown business community and the Bayside District Corporation, the nonprofit that manages the Downtown, have long complained that panhandling is rampant and have advocated a change in strategy.

In addition to looking at programs in other cities, strategies in other states may give regional leaders a better model, given the vast and disparate communities in the Los Angeles area, Rusk said.

"Los Angeles is more akin to some of these states in terms of the kind of coordination that is needed than some cities, so it was good to get that feedback," she said.

In addition to new service strategies and coordinating governments’ efforts, housing remained a key concern for many at the conference, especially those coming from the Los Angeles region.

"Where we all struggle is with finding funding and appropriate siting for housing production, and then making sure the newly housed people continue to have access to crucial medical and counseling support for the problems that made them chronically homeless in the first place," said McKeown.

City officials plan to continue pursuing Santa Monica’s new homeless strategies, Rusk said.

The City will begin applying for its second round of federal money for the local Housing First initiative and continue holding a pilot community homeless court that offers services to petty offenders. Held at City Hall, the court held its second session March 2, giving 13 defendants the chance to trade jail time for help in addressing their problems.

City officials are also taking action on several recommendations made by consultants from the Washington-based Urban Institute, including forming a community round-table where stakeholders can permanently discuss homeless issues, according to Rusk.

The City also has started sending out requests for proposals for a new data system to help accurately track the homeless who tap into Santa Monica’s extensive network of social service providers, Rusk said.

All of these efforts, she said, will be underway simultaneously in the next few months.


"Where we all struggle is with finding funding and appropriate siting for housing production."
Kevin McKeown





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