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Santa Monica sees some progress in its battle to get the homeless off the streets

Long known for generosity to transients, the city has adopted a program to provide transitional housing and treatment. An 8% drop in the street population is reported.

February 26, 2009|Martha Groves

Two Santa Monica police officers approached a woman as she knelt under a bush one sunny morning near City Hall, "looking for my dead son."

Within minutes, Officers Jacob Holloway and Dan Smith had learned her name and age (Gloria Breslin, 55) and phoned her 17-year-old son (alive and well in Venice), who said his mother was a longtime methamphetamine addict. Holloway loaded her and her husky-mix dog into the back of a squad car and drove her to a nearby social services agency, where she already had a caseworker.

Known for decades as "home of the homeless" for its generous treatment of transients, liberal-leaning Santa Monica has embraced a multi-pronged approach to getting people off the streets that is yielding results.

Borrowing successful practices from New York, San Francisco and Denver, police and service providers in Santa Monica are collaborating closely to ensure that individuals most at risk find transitional housing and treatment.

A city report released Monday shows an 8% reduction in Santa Monica's street population from 2007 levels, to 915. City officials acknowledge the number is unacceptable but say the decline indicates the new philosophy is working.

Holloway and Smith are two of six officers in the city's "homeless liaison program" who cruise streets, parks and alleys looking for the homeless and encouraging them to seek services and housing. On any given day, they might cart a diabetic man with ulcerated sores to the hospital or help a homeless teenager find a place to stay.

The program expects to soon add a seventh officer and a county mental health worker, said Sgt. Joaquin Vega, supervisor of the program. The officers have become such fixtures that street denizens often ask them for help.

"I grew up here," Vega said. "I've seen a drastic improvement over the last two to three years."

Vega said the strategy is a departure from years past, when police would arrest or hospitalize the inebriated, drug-addled or mentally ill homeless, only to release them in a few hours or days. Well-intentioned groups offered outdoor meals, and some agencies encouraged individuals to drop in to take showers. Upset residents and business owners contended Santa Monica was putting out a welcome mat.

City officials realized that the old way made it easy for homeless people to perpetuate their lifestyle. New York and San Francisco by then were having luck with a "housing first" model. The aim was to get the homeless out of the elements and then provide counseling and care.

Santa Monica's streets -- with some exceptions -- are starting to feel different.

"What I hear people saying is they feel like we still have a lot of work to do, but things are getting better," said John Maceri, executive director of Ocean Park Community Center, or OPCC, an organization that provides homeless services and housing.

The shift in perceptions has prompted Santa Monica to change plans for an anti-panhandling campaign designed to encourage people to donate to social service agencies rather than give directly to beggars.

GMMB, a consulting group, came up with a provocative advertising campaign to show the harm that giving a dollar or two to panhandlers can do. It featured a homeless person tethered to the ground with a ball and chain made of change. The city rejected the idea after business leaders complained that it might reinforce a negative stereotype.

GMMB is now creating a campaign to educate residents and visitors about homeless services and encourage them to volunteer.

One late January night, 260 volunteers walked every street and alley in Santa Monica, counting homeless people. The 8% reduction was good news.

"The census is one way we can track that our efforts are bearing fruit, that our people are moving from the streets into housing," said Danielle Noble, Santa Monica's senior administrative analyst for homeless services. She and other city officials acknowledge that the souring economy could inflate the number.

Of 130 chronically homeless individuals deemed to be at high risk of dying on Santa Monica streets, 54 have been housed and are receiving treatment for mental or physical problems, including addictions. (The program is similar to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors' Project 50, designed to house vulnerable individuals on skid row.)

Separately, Santa Monica's homeless community court, launched in 2007, has dismissed the citations or warrants of individuals who have sought treatment for addictions or mental illness. And the city's Project Homecoming program has helped reunite 310 homeless people with their families.

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