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Unanimous Council Vote Masks Deep Disagreements About Homelessness
By Jorge Casuso
May 12, 2023 -- In the end, it was unanimous. All the Councilmembers present agreed that the City should continue, and in some cases expand, the ambitious and costly programs and initiatives it began embarking on decades ago to tackle an entrenched homeless problem.
But beneath the unity were major disagreements over basic questions: Who should the homeless programs ultimately help? And what is the best way to achieve a goal so elusive it persists despite more than $40 million a year in spending?
Before an often contentious debate that ended shortly before 3 a.m. Wednesday, City Manager David White summed up Santa Monica's daunting challenge.
"We have faced this issue head on for decades because it is intolerable and unacceptable that people in our city and nation are homeless," White said in a prepared speech.
"Homelessness persists for reasons that are outside our control, and it persists despite our very best efforts and significant measures because the system is gridlocked.
"More people are homeless than are housed everyday," White said.
White noted that three months ago the Council declared a State of Emergency on Homelessness that will increase outside funding and help hire staff and that voters have approved a number of funding measures.
Now, a newly formed department will be among eight City Departments working to tackle the problem, he said.
"Our approach is to balance compassion with enforcement," White said.
Below are highlights of the comments made by Concilmembers who expressed sometimes widely differing views, often at length.
Councilmember Phil Brock
"We have (homeless) people dying on the streets of Santa Monica. That's not being compassionate. We're not being compassionate to the residents who walk the streets and get assaulted. That's not compassionate. And we're not compassionate to our businesses who need to make sure they have a clean safe environment."
"Right now, I think the homeless issues in our city affect everyone who lives, works and shops here. It threatens the health of our city as a whole, so it needs to be addressed."
Mayor Gleam Davis
"I think that it's important for us to understand that it's not just about making it so that I don't have to see homeless people on the street. That is solving our problem. Getting housing for homeless people is solving their problem."
"We're not focusing on the needs of the people on the street. We're focusing on the need not to see them."
"There's been a lot of talk tonight about people, I don't like to call them transients, who are going in and out of the City. . . It's easy to say they came from other places, and some of them do, but we also know that some of them become homeless here in Santa Monica.
"I don't know what the percentage is, and honestly I don't care. . . But I think that it is important to understand that we are talking about people in Santa Monica. And someone who's lived in a park or a street in Santa Monica for six months or a year, to me that's a Santa Monican."
"I don't see a ton of Santa Monicans unhoused, but I do see people in cars and trailers and on the streets who do need help."
Councilmember Jesse Zwick
"If you want to tackle this influx, you have to build more housing. . . . And we are not going to succeed if jurisdictions across California continue to block multi-family housing and drive up rents.
"The population of Santa Monica has grown by 5,000 over 40 years, while the population of California has more than doubled.
"We would not be building housing if the State wasn't breathing down our necks and that of every other jurisdiction."
"It's not about permanent housing, because we're not going to be able to provide permanent housing for everyone from Tennessee or Mississippi or Nebraska or Colorado tomorrow. We have to provide help.
"Help could be any type of interim housing, any type of congregate housing, any type of tiny houses. It could be a rehab center, so we can have someone start to regain their life."
"Don't try to drive the homeless into places we find suitable, help them move into places they find suitable."
Councilmember Lana Negrete
"We have to collect data. When people are coming in droves to our city, we have to look at why that is. At some point we have to get to the root of the issue."
Councilmember Oscar de la Torre, who said little during the meeting, was driving home at 2:40 a.m. when he saw a naked homeless man raving at a mural in Virginia Avenue Park.
Afraid the man would run into the street, de la Torre called 9-1-1. As he was reporting the incident, another homeless man rode up to him on a bicycle and said he had been shot in the head. De la Torre saw blood and added it to his report.
"It was a big eye opener for me," de la Torre said. "People say housing, housing, housing, and at a million a pop (to build a unit), I don't see that as a viable solution.
"I think they're well intentioned, and we need to help build affordable housing, but I think it's a little off. The issue we're faced with is beyond that solution.
"I'm not convinced that we're going to house ourselves out of this problem."
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