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Santa Monica to Explore New Ways to Tackle Homelessness

Bob Kronovetrealty
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Santa Monica

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By Jorge Casuso

February 24, 2021 -- The City Council on Tuesday directed staff to explore creating "non-congregate" shelters in City properties such as parking structures to make it easier to enforce "quality of life" laws.

The proposal -- along with the creation of a "behavioral health triage center" -- were unanimously approved for study after the Council affirmed its ongoing strategy to address homelessness.

That strategy includes continuing multidisciplinary street outreach teams and Reed Park Ambassadors and expanding rental assistance to prevent Santa Monicans from becoming homeless.

But it was the new proposals -- which staff cautioned would be costly and long-term -- that the Council hopes will address a homeless problem that has become more visible during the coronavirus shutdown.

"What residents want to hear is that we are doing something," said Councilmember Phil Brock. "We're asked, 'How can we do more?'

Non-congregate shelters, Brock said, "need to be pushed in Santa Monica. Taking people off the streets and getting them help is imperative."

It's also a necessary step before the City can begin enforcing its "anti-camping and anti-sleeping ordinances" in public parking garages and parks, said Interim City Attorney George Cardona.

"You cannot criminalize essentially not having a place to sleep," Cardona said. "You have to make sure people have some alternative.

"We don't have the ability to require them to go there, but we would have the option to enforce quality of life crimes."

That may be difficult to do at a time when court operations have been severely limited by the pandemic, officials warned.

"Cases go into the system and stay there with no resolution," said Nicole Gougis, Chief Deputy City Attorney, who heads the office's criminal division.

Santa Monica’s current shelter capacity includes 186 interim beds for individuals, 67 interim beds for families and 116 substance use treatment beds, according to staff.

At Council's direction, staff also will explore creating a Behavioral Health Triage Center "to address the growing need for 24/7 alternatives to hospital emergency rooms and jails."

The City could partner with a third party or convert an existing property in Santa Monica, or both, staff said.

The Council also voted to explore extending a six-month pilot program initiated by the Fire Department that deploys a Community Response Unit (CRU).

The two-person paramedic team could help reduce the 2,946 homeless-related responses -- 18 percent of the total -- the department made in Fiscal Year 2019-20.

The team, according to staff, "enhanced relationships between SMFD and social service providers, and provided training to SMFD personnel on how to connect vulnerable individuals to resources."

"It's a proven program and (the cost) is reimbursable," said Councilmember Christine Parra, who pushed for the program.

The options the Council chose to explore, cautioned City Manager Lane Dilg, "are very expensive and long term" at a time when federal funding is uncertain.

The Council members agreed that the top priority is keeping vulnerable Santa Monicans in their homes by extending funding that supported 900 households and provided services that helped another 800 households.

“Housing is a human right and it is unconscionable that Los Angeles County has as many people living without housing as the population of one of its smaller cities,” Mayor Sue Himmelrich said in a statement after the meeting.

“But we are determined to confront this human tragedy with effective and innovative solutions," Himmelrich said. "The City Council is committed to ensuring safe public spaces and housing for all."

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