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Santa Monica's Homeless Numbers Rise After COVID-Driven Drop

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By Jorge Casuso

May 4, 2023 -- A total of 926 individuals were counted during this year's homeless census in Santa Monica, an increase over last year but fewer than were counted in 2019, according to results released by the City Thursday.

The count represents an overall increase of 15 percent over the 807 homeless persons counted last year, when the results were skewed by a dramatic drop in the sheltered population due to COVID protocols.

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This year, 73 more individuals than last year were counted on the street and in vehicles, and 46 more were counted in emergency motels, shelters, hospitals and the Santa Monica jail.

"The significant increase in the sheltered and unsheltered population comes as no surprise," City Manager David White said during a briefing Thursday morning.

"The system is gridlocked," White said. "More people become homeless every day than are housed."

Despite a public perception that Santa Monica's homeless population has mushroomed, the 2023 Census found 56 fewer homeless persons than the 985 counted in 2019.

The new census counted 541 individuals living on the streets -- an increase of 2 since 539 were counted in 2019. It also counted more homeless individuals Downtown, but fewer on the beach.

White was asked during the briefing if he trusts the new census numbers -- taken on January 25, between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. -- "are accurate" and if he believes they will "ring hollow to residents who feel the situation is worse than it's ever been."

"We do have confidence in this point-in-time count," White responded. "It provides us with a reasonable estimate." But he noted that Santa Monica's "daytime population is higher than the nighttime population."

Achée Stevenson, senior Human Services analyst said that "Santa Monica's borders are porous," and that "there's a daily influx and outflux" of homeless people.

"We wish that the numbers had gone in a different direction," Stevenson said. "We go above and beyond in what we do."

The census results have been eagerly awaited by residents and business owners who have expressed alarm by what they see as a burgeoning homeless population emboldened by lax State laws to engage in anti-social, and sometimes, criminal behavior.

To address a worsening crisis, the City Council declared a Local Emergency on Homelessness on February 14 that will boost funding and speed up hiring more staff ("Council Votes to Declare Homelessness Emergency," February 15, 2023).

A month later, the Council unanimously directed staff to create a new department and allocate new tax dollars to tackle the persistent problem ("Council Creates Department to Focus on Housing and Homelessness," March 13, 2023).

Under the reorganization plan approved by the Council, the newly created Housing and Human Services Department will become "the organization point" for homelessness services and programs.

Santa Monica -- which spends an estimated $42.5 million a year on homeless programs and services -- is redoubling its efforts ("Workplan Outlines City's Efforts Tackling Homelessness," February 3, 2023).

It is expanding its homeless outreach team and Police Department liaison team, redesigning SAMOSHEL for around-the-clock intakes, launching a pilot homeless support team and implementing a therapeutic transport program.

The City, however, does not have accurate demographic data on how many of the homeless persons are permanent residents or passing through, how long they have been in the city or how many suffer from mental illness or substance abuse.

The City no longer conducts an anonymous survey -- as it had done on occasion in the past -- and relies on "County data sampling that may or may not include Santa Monica," staff said during Thursday's briefing.

The only information available is what is "self-reported" by those who receive City services, staff said.

Dubbed the "Home of the Homeless" in the 1990s, Santa Monica has tried an arsenal of solutions -- from mounting a stiff crackdown to focusing on providing more permanent supportive housing and affordable units ("It's Deja Vu for Santa Monica's Homeless Policies," April 26, 2022).

"Santa Monica is not alone in grappling with homelessness," said White, noting it is a County, State and national problem. "We have focused on this for decades," he said. "Yet homelessness persists."

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