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Seeking out the most vulnerable

Agencies assess the homeless in a plan to get those most at risk of dying off Santa Monica's streets.

January 29, 2008|Francisco Vara-Orta | Times Staff Writer

With its storefront tributes to Southern California's surfing culture and L.A.'s hipster elite, the leafy dinosaur topiary and gleaming signs that promise multiple movies, Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade is a popular destination for tens of thousands each week.

In the middle of the night, it is a destination of another sort for a smattering of the city's chronically homeless. It is those inhabitants whom social workers hoped to encounter early Monday.

One man, wrapped in an orange scarf and dingy blankets, slept near the entrance to Barney's Beanery. A nearby walker was draped with his only personal belongings, protected from the almost constant drizzle.

"Am I in your way or something?" he asked after he was awakened at 3:15 a.m.

"No, you're fine," John Maceri said. "We're with the city of Santa Monica and we want to help you."

Maceri, the executive director of the Ocean Park Community Center, was one of 50 people helping conduct a survey of the chronically homeless in Santa Monica in the early morning.

It was the fourth of seven days during which teams of people from the city, nonprofit social service agencies, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the county's Department of Mental Health are attempting to count the number of homeless. The goal is to find those who are at the greatest risk of dying on the streets.

Although the man in the orange scarf didn't know it, he is part of a growing social experiment that some experts say is helping shrink the chronically homeless population in major urban centers.

Maceri and two colleagues interviewed him for about 30 minutes, asking about his vital statistics and health. He is in his late 40s, a veteran and hearing-impaired, he told the social workers. The Third Street Promenade, he said, is his home.

"I live on the Promenade!" the man in the orange scarf proclaimed as Maceri jotted down answers and Ed Parker, a street outreach coordinator for Step Up on Second, complimented him on his receptiveness to their questions.

After the interview, the social workers handed him a $5 gift certificate from a fast-food restaurant. Maceri and his teammates went through the same process with seven other people sleeping on the Promenade. Five of them agreed to take their survey.

"The people out here in the middle of the night sleeping are the most challenging to get to use social services," said Danielle Noble, the leader of Maceri's group and senior administrative analyst with Santa Monica's Homeless Services office.

Noble and others say their hope is to get the most vulnerable homeless people into housing and help all the chronically homeless get in touch with agencies that can get them off the streets more quickly.

The project is the latest of Santa Monica's efforts to end its chronic homeless problem. Every night, an estimated 600 people sleep at shelters and on the city's sidewalks, streets and benches, city officials say.

The city formally launched its Chronic Homeless Project in 2004. As of this month, 77 people who had been chronically homeless are now housed, according to Julie Rusk, human services manager for Santa Monica.

In October, Rusk said, the city decided to collaborate with Common Ground, a New York City nonprofit group that launched a similar, successful effort to house homeless people living in Times Square.

Common Ground's approach is a technological breakthrough, said Gary Blasi, a UCLA law professor who has studied homelessness for 25 years.

"It's innovative because you are looking at the root of the problem and finding the homeless instead of them finding you," said Blasi, who observed another Common Ground effort in December on Los Angeles' skid row.

"Normally, the chronically homeless make it to agencies when in crisis, like emergency rooms," Blasi said. The Common Ground "approach isn't an exact science but targets the chronically homeless, the more difficult ones, that the shelter system historically leaves out."

In December, volunteers from county agencies and social service groups canvassed about 40 blocks of skid row with Common Ground, plotting the concentration of tents and sleeping bags and identifying hubs of drug activity.

The surveyors counted 471 people regularly sleeping on the area's streets and persuaded 350 of them to be interviewed. Recently, Los Angeles County supervisors unanimously approved a $5.6-million plan to house and provide health services for the 50 most vulnerable homeless people on skid row identified by the survey.

Each person is given a "vulnerability score" that is determined by factors such as length of homelessness and physical and mental health status, in an effort to predict an individual's risk of dying on the streets.

Rusk said that Santa Monica's goal is to house the 10 most vulnerable people as soon as possible. Once they are housed, efforts will be directed toward housing the next 10 most vulnerable people, going down the list as far as possible, Rusk said.

During an initial head count last Friday morning, the Santa Monica surveyors counted 277 individuals sleeping on streets in the early morning. The teams are scheduled to go out again from 3 a.m. to 5 a.m. today and Wednesday.

A public briefing on the survey will be held at 3 p.m. Thursday at the Santa Monica Main Library Auditorium, 601 Santa Monica Blvd.

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francisco.varaorta@ latimes.com

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