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Santa Monica Needs Radical Shift in Homeless Policies, Report Recommends

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By Jorge Casuso

April 21, 2022 -- Santa Monica must strike out in a new direction if it hopes to make significant inroads in addressing its longstanding homeless problem, a new report concludes.

The report authored by attorney Elizabeth Mitchell -- who recently reached a groundbreaking settlement with the City of Los Angeles over its homeless policies -- lays out a number of legal and policy options the City can use.

These include enacting local ordinances, suing Los Angeles County for failing to tackle the growing homeless problem or placing a measure on the countywide ballot forcing officials to address the crisis they created.

"Homelessness has been a persistent challenge for decades but is now creeping towards a point of no return," Mitchell, an attorney with Spertus Law, wrote in her report for Santa Monica Pulse.

"Few cities are better positioned to lead by creating a citywide model to address homelessness than the City of Santa Monica."

In her report, Mitchell, who represents a coalition of downtown residents, homeless individuals and property owners, said City officials need to recognize the status quo "isn't working" and shift to a comprehensive new strategy.

But first, the City must get a handle on the problem by auditing the extensive network of services it has been bankrolling for decades to tackle homelessness, a step the City recently took after years of failing to keep close track of its efforts.

"Existing data already raises questions," wrote Mitchell, whose settlement with the Ciy of LA is expected to result in some 14,000 new beds for the homeless.

"Of particular concern is the statistic that Santa Monica hosts 253 interim shelter beds, but only serves 111 people, which is an occupancy rate of less than 50 percent."

A recent internal report requested by the City Council did not provide data showing the outcome of the more than $5 million a year the City spends in homeless outreach efforts ("Santa Monica Spends Some $5 Million a Year in Homeless Outreach, Report Says," January 20, 2022).

"The City currently does not have a methodology for tracking all expenditures related to homelessness," the report from the City Manager's office said.

An audit, Mitchell wrote, should "determine the efficacy" of the City's current model, which has been in place for more than 15 years and focuses on providing housing for the chronically homeless.

"City staff and civic leaders,"she wrote, have "remained committed to existing programs, confident that they will get the job done as resources become available."

The report recommends that the City not only do a better job of enforcing existing ordinances, but it should "enact a package of new ordinances to implement comprehensive solutions to homelessness."

These should include "immediate housing options, access to services, reduction of encampments, and regulation of public spaces," Mitchell wrote.

"The legislative route would enable the city council to show leadership and shape the final ordinance."

In addition, Santa Monica should entertain the option of suing Los Angeles County, something the LA Alliance for Human Rights that Mitchell heads has done.

"A lawsuit against the County of Los Angeles could be joined by other cities who have suffered similar harm from the county's lack of outreach, mental health services, and immediate housing options," the report said.

"If the City was unwilling or unable to sue the County of Los Angeles for its failures, the City could take the lesser step of joining a coalition of other cities to publicly confront the County for its nonperformance and neglect."

The City can also use the ballot to enact the "comprehensive strategy" outlined in the report.

"A citywide ballot measure could make it to the ballot in 2022 either by gathering signatures or through council action," Mitchell wrote. "This process gives the author a significant amount of control over the substance of the measure."

Another route would be to place a measure on the County ballot, since "much of LA's homelessness crisis is caused by the ineffectiveness of Los Angeles County in administering services, and many other cities share the frustration of Santa Monica."

While much more costly and difficult to qualify, such a measure "would compel county officials to more robustly address the homelessness crisis."

The measure could include provisions to make shelters available, increase General Relief, boost the number of beds and treatment for those suffering from mental health and substance use disorder and provide 24/7 outreach to those living on the streets.

"This approach is advantageous because it confronts some of the policy and programmatic failings that have created this crisis and politically it makes the county the villain," Mitchell wrote.

While supporters can expect to face opposition from the Board of Supervisors and County staff, they "would be bringing the fight to the right place and potentially forcing the state to get involved in the conversation."

The City of Santa Monica -- which has seen five new Council members elected or appointed in less than two years -- is positioned to embark in a new direction, the report concludes.

"The City of Santa Monica has a unique, eclectic, and engaging political culture and climate," Mitchell wrote.

"It also seems to be experiencing a shift in its politics, with the decline of SMRR (Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights) and influential new voices at the table.

"These factors combine to create a unique window to advance meaningful change in the city and to reaffirm Santa Monica’s reputation as a civic leader and innovator."

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