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Council Considers New Homeless Strategies

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

December 16 -- In what City officials described as a crossroads in the fight against homelessness, council members Tuesday backed an ambitious plan with new strategies to help lift people off the streets of Santa Monica.

From new programs – such as passing out bus tickets to individuals who want to reunite with family members who agree to shelter them – to expanding programs introduced in the last six months – such as a offering chronic alcoholics recovery help as they sit in jail– a move is underway to take the fight against homelessness in new directions.

“This is an historic time,” said Mona Miyasato, who heads up staff working on homeless issues as the City’s acting human services manager. “We can show others that we are leading the way in solutions that make sense and in the long-term can be cost effective for the City.”

While the savings should theoretically come in the long-run from reduced trips to area hospitals and emergency systems that spend tens of thousands of dollars a year on treatment of the homeless, the new strategies will not come cheap.

In fact, one estimate by staffers placed a $10 million price tag in the coming years, paid mostly by the City, to assist up to 400 of the Santa Monica’s most hardened homeless – or chronic homeless -- get into supportive housing and on their feet, a centerpiece of the new strategies.

At $22,000 to $27,000 per person per year, the cost is more than the City doles out to the eight service providers it currently partners with -- a figure that worries some service groups and at least one council member.

“I’m beginning to appreciate why service providers are worried that there wouldn’t be any money left for any of their programs because ($10 million) is more money than our budget presently is that we spend presently on all of these agencies,” said newly installed Mayor Bob Holbrook.

Currently, the chronic homeless program is a pilot project.

Supported by a $900,000 grant awarded recently by the Federal government – most of which will be spent on rent – about 30 individuals have been targeted by the City for assistance in the last year, with 13 of those now living in supportive housing, off the street.

In the coming fiscal year, City officials hope to more than double the number enrolled to 72.

A primary ingredient in the move to assist the hard-core homeless is a homeless service model known as “housing first,” which provides supportive housing before an individual is fully recovered.

The model – backed heavily by Council Member and new Mayor Pro-tem Bobby Shriver – would mirror efforts in New York, San Francisco and other cities, which have reported an average savings of nearly $17,000 to $25,000 per person in less frequent emergency room visits or drains on other municipal services, such as paramedics and police, according to City Staff.

“Many of these individuals are costing various elements of city government much more than ($10 million),” said Shriver. “Vast sums, much more than that $10 million, are already being spent within the system.”

However service providers – who have functioned for more than a decade under the service model known as the “Continuum of Care,” which connects homeless individuals to services first and then to housing – worried that the City might overemphasize the Housing First model and Chronic Homeless programs to the detriment of those who have not been on the street very long.

“We’ll be pouring a lot of resources into a small number of people (who are chronically homeless),” said John Maceri, director of the Ocean Park Community Center (OPCC) which receives the lion’s share of City assisted funding under the Continuum of Care model.

“Our concern is that we are going to be left with a groundswell of people who are not yet homeless,” but could be soon, Maceri said. “We don’t want them to fall through the cracks on the front end.”

He pointed to statistics that show the sooner someone receives services after becoming homeless, the less likely they are to fall into a chronic life on the streets.

Rhonda Meister, executive director of the service provider St. Joseph’s Center, echoed Maceri’s concern and said she would like to “underscore the challenges of focusing on the chronically homeless, but to continue to hold in place services for those who are not yet homeless.”

City officials said they will continue with the Continuum of Care model while adding on new programs, such as Housing First and the chronic homeless program.

Critical to how the Continuum of Care model will continue to function in Santa Monica in coming years will be an audit that the City plans to launch in early 2006.

An annual progress report released Tuesday shows that there has been little progress made in graduating people off of services and into housing and jobs in the last two years.

While the numbers showed that over the last year about the same number of people were serviced as in previous years -- 2,861 -- this is the second year in a row there had been a downturn in the number of people placed in any type of housing or jobs because of a red-hot rental market on the Westside, according to the staff report.

Over the past two years, the number of homeless individuals placed in permanent housing dropped by 124, from 433 to 309, and the number of those placed in transitional housing fell by 81, from 413 to 342 .

The key to turning those statistics around, said Miyasato, is increased housing.

“Housing is the end game in all of this,” said Miyasato. “In the end, we need somewhere appropriate to put people to get people the services they need. We need more housing.”

The City, she said, needs to work with non-profits and for-profit, private and governmental groups to secure that housing stock in the coming years.

And Santa Moncia is not alone.

Currently, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is spearheading an effort to obtain a $1 billion grant for housing in Los Angeles.

On Tuesday, in addition to increased housing and a shake up in the service model, City Council members also looked at regional solutions to homelessness.

The council Tuesday approved a $200,000 contract for former County Supervisor Edmund Edelman, 75, to spearhead the coordination of regional homeless efforts, a proposal first aired by Council member Shriver soon after he took office in 2004.

Another Shriver proposal that seems also to be gaining traction is a regional effort to secure housing for homeless veterans on the current V.A. site in Westwood, which is also being considered for private development.

Shriver on Tuesday encouraged people to start a letter writing campaign to sway public opinion and federal government officials who soon will determine the fate of the site.

Establishing a mental health court on the Westside of Los Angeles is another regional movement underway, as well as continuing to develop strategies for increased coordination between cities through the framework of the Westside Council of Governments (WCOG) and “Bring LA Home,” a federal initiative to end homelessness in the next 10 years.

Councilmember Richard Bloom has been instrumental in representing Santa Monica at both the WCOG and Bring LA Home.

“There’s a huge amount of work to do,” said Bloom.

“It’s important to retain a healthy sense of optimism,” he said, in the face of daunting statistics that show of the 800,000 homeless estimated in the U.S., 92,000 live on the streets of Los Angeles County.

“That’s 11 percent, or one in ten in our county,” Bloom said. “It’s enormous.”

Bloom echoed staff's views on increasing housing stock, and said he will continue to work within the WCOG and Bring LA Home to increase cooperation.

During the presentation Tuesday, Miyasato outlined eight initiatives that the City has launched in 2005 or plans to launch in the upcoming year.

The newest initiatives include:

  • A program modeled after San Francisco’s “Homeward Bound” program to provide transportation costs -- usually a bus ticket -- to reunify homeless individuals with their families outside of Santa Monica;
  • A comprehensive system and program evaluation, or audit, of the City current model to service the homeless – known as the “Continuum of Care” – which has functioned as the main strategy now for dealing with homelessness for a decade in the City, and
  • The possibility of establishing a mental health court to take drug
    offenders out of the general population of criminal courts.

The City will also continue with and consider significantly boosting funding to several initiatives moved forward in the last year including:

  • The serial inebriate program, currently run by the CLARE foundation out of the City’s jail to offer assistance to chronic alcoholics;
  • A review of the City’s ordinances to persuade homeless individuals to seek out services and continued coordination with police and medical teams who assist the homeless;
  • A move to expand the Chronic homeless pilot program to support those individuals who have lived on the streets the longest and are the largest drain on area hospitals and other services;
  • A plan to add emphasis on more housing, temporary and permanent, in Santa Monica and the surrounding area, and
  • Substantially expanding the “Housing First” model, which is another
    over-arching service model that provides housing first and supportive services to get people off the street, even if they are not considered completely rehabilitated from drug or alcohol addiction.
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