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Growing Homeless Population Taxes City Services, Report Finds

By Oliver Lukacs

Sept. 23 -- The number of homeless who received services in Santa Monica grew by 25 percent last year to more than 2,500, exceeding "present and foreseeable capabilities" and overwhelming the City's extensive social service network, according to a report prepared by the Police and Community and Cultural Services departments.

The Annual Report on Homeless Services, which will be presented to the City Council Tuesday night, calls for shifting resources to provide weekend meals to participants of City programs and to boost police presence on the Third Street Promenade and in parks near Downtown.

Not all the findings were bleak. The report also concluded that the current "continuum of care" model "works," helping many of the estimated 4,000 homeless who circulate through the City every year find work and shelter.

According to the report, 750 of the 2,500 homeless persons served in 2001-02 received shelter and assistance to self-sufficiency; 450 were assisted in finding and maintaining employment and "not withstanding the shrinking supply of low-income housing on the Westside, almost 250 homeless people were assisted into permanent housing."

The report recommends that funds be secured to "ensure" that daily "nutritious" meals are served by City-funded agencies to participants and to begin providing meals over the weekends, which the City is now only providing for shelter residents.

"It is anticipated that providing healthy meals each day will encourage homeless individuals who are not in the network to enroll in agencies and will fill any gaps" resulting from a proposed crackdown by the City on meal providers, many of them from out of town, according to the report.

Extra funds -- in addition to the $1,826,722 spent last year on City services -- might be needed to implement a recommended boost in the presence of police and park rangers on the Third Street Promenade and City parks near Downtown.

Palisades, Reed and Memorial parks -- the scenes of "feeding programs" that attract as many as 300 homeless -- will be the primary focus of the Park Rangers and Community Service Officers, according to the report.

"Grounds keepers, park rangers, and police personnel report significant problems with litter, damage to landscaping, and disturbances of the peace" by the homeless who "linger" after their meals, the report said. "In contrast, most of the City parks in solely residential neighborhoods are not impacted."

In addition to the free meal programs, other reasons cited for the increase in the City's homeless population are a declining economy and deficiencies in the mental health care system. Police also "suggest" that the increase may stem "from the County's current policy of incarcerating only felony suspects and thereby allowing chronic misdemeanants to remain at large."

Noting that homelessness has been identified by residents responding to an annual City Resident Survey as the "City's most pressing issue" three years in a row, the report ultimately recommends the approval of the two ordinances that will be taken up by the council Tuesday night.

While touting the success of the City's social services model, the report notes that the success comes at a price and that the problem must be looked at in realistic terms.

"The provisions of this successful continuum of care is costly; and, as the report also explains, there are limits on what the City can do to address the nationwide problem of homelessness," the report concluded.
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