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City Spends More than $40 Million on Homelessness But Lacks Way to Gauge Progress

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By Jorge Casuso

December 1, 2022 -- Santa Monica spends an estimated $42.5 million a year on homeless programs and services but lacks a specific plan and the data needed to gauge whether its efforts are paying off.

Those are the key conclusions of an eagerly anticipated 110-page Homelessness Study by the accounting firm Moss Adams LLP that was presented to the City's Audit Subcommittee on Monday.

The study -- which offers 19 recommendations -- notes that the City's plan to tackle one of the community's top priorities has major shortcomings and no clear leader to implement it.

"This framework does not provide specific objectives, comprehensive policy direction, or performance indicators, which are all commonly found it a strategic plan," the report said.

"Strategic plan implementation will require concerted coordination and collaboration across various City departments; therefore, it is critical that the City establish or identify a position with broad
authority to oversee this work."

The City will also need to implement a "measurement framework" to "consistently track, compare, and communicate the impact of the City's homelessness response efforts," as well as a way to accurately obtain and track data.

"Due to resource allocation decisions, the City’s capacity to validate and assess the demographic information that is collected is compromised to the point that reliable data on the issue is not currently available," the report said.

"However, service providers and City staff anecdotally report that the population of unsheltered individuals in the community is largely transient and fluctuates significantly over time."

The glaring lack of data -- due to the elimination of key analyst positions and shortcomings in the City's system to gather and share information -- frustrated members of the Audit Subcommittee.

If social service providers and staff "can't tell us the results, we're not really going to accomplish this long term," said Councilmember Phil Brock, one of three Council members on the five-member Subcommittee.

"And then we hear that all this money has been spent," Brock said. "I would bet we spend more money on this than any city in California."

Councilmember Christine Parra, who is Culver City's Emergency Preparedness Coordinator, was taken aback by the lack of data in the long-awaited report.

"It took two years to finally get here," Parra said. "As an emergency manager you want to get a really good sense of where we are."

"There's almost no data that certainly allows you to define the problem," said Marc Verville, the subcommittee's vice chair.

"We're talking about all the solutions, but we're admitting that we don't know what the problem is."

City officials estimate the size of Santa Monica's homeless population using a federally mandated census taken during a night and early morning in late January.

This year's COVID-delayed count -- taken by some 300 volunteers on February 23 -- found that the City's homeless population had dropped from 907 to 807.

"Honestly, I don't believe that count," Brock said.

Verville noted that counting heads on a winter night does nothing to establish the true size and nature of Santa Monica's homeless population.

The 900 people counted could all be living in Santa Monica year round, or they could be among 10,000 homeless people who cycle through the beach city every year, Verville said.

The data also fail to gauge how many of the homeless in Santa Monica are mentally ill or chronic substance abusers or both, conditions that could drastically affect the kind of help needed.

“We are trying to define the problem for Santa Monica," said Verville, who served as Vice President of Finance and Business Analysis at Warner Bros. and was a CPA before his retirement.

"Until and unless that problem is adequately and clearly defined unequivocally, then all of the discussion about all of these solutions is going nowhere and contributing nothing to actually getting this problem addressed and under control."

While the City spends nearly $5 million a year to directly connect with the homeless individuals who live on the streets, there is little or no data from the six specialized outreach teams about those they contact ("Santa Monica Spends Some $5 Million a Year in Homeless Outreach, Report Says," January 20, 2022).

The Moss Adams report notes that the City uses a Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) "to log interactions with and service referrals to people experiencing homelessness within a community."

But the information that can be shared is limited because it includes "sensitive health information" that cannot be shared with first responders, according to the report.

"Departments that contact people experiencing homelessness record these interactions within their own individual systems, or not at all," the report said.

"As a result, the ability for the CRU (Community Response Unit), HLP (SMPD's Homeless Liaison Program) team, and other service providers to collaborate, and the City’s ability to accurately report on metrics by person or program is limited."

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