At its March 22 meeting, the Santa Monica City Council voted unanimously to allocate $10,000 to be used by Exodus House Recovery to secure a building near the Brotman Medical Center that will be used for a regional Psychiatric Urgent Care and sobering center.
At the same time, it asked City staff to provide additional information on six other homelessness policy areas.
In effect, the Council vote ratified a City staff report that stated that “one of the contributing factors to homelessness, particularly among the chronic street population, is drug and alcohol abuse. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that nationwide, 50% of homeless adults experience substance abuse. For half of those, alcohol is the substance of choice. The residential components of Santa Monica’s continuum of care are currently not equipped to deal with chronic inebriates while they are still intoxicated. Many of them are simply transported to local hospitals and use expensive emergency room services. The absence of a ‘sobering center’ where people can be safely taken by Police and Paramedics while they are still inebriated coupled with intensive services designed to steer participants toward sobriety, has been identified as a gap, not just in Santa Monica’s continuum of care, but across the entire Westside.”
On January 11, the Council established the following goals for the sobering center:
• To slow or stop the cycle of chronic alcoholics going in and out of detoxification centers, jail and emergency rooms;
• To divert this population off the street and into treatment programs;
• To significantly reduce the uncompensated costs, time constraints and personnel burden to health care, law enforcement, fire and paramedics, and judicial infrastructure caused by homeless chronic alcoholics;
• To give people who routinely live on the street an opportunity to create a stable mainstream lifestyle;
• To link with the criminal justice system to promote treatment as an alternative to incarceration;
• To develop a program which does not draw additional homeless persons to Santa Monica from other jurisdictions.
The staff report also said that “Between now and September, City staff will continue to work with Department of Mental Health, other county agencies, and service providers to refine a sobering center program, identify the provider (possibly the CLARE Foundation), develop operating protocols and budget, resolve legal and liability issues, and identify funding sources.”
After approving the allocation for Psychiatric and Urgent Care and sobering center, the Council discussed six areas in which City policies might be needed in order to ensure public safety and welfare in public spaces such as parks and sidewalks.
Generating the most discussion was vehicular camping on City streets and the overnight use of cars in park and beach parking lots.
Mayor Pro tem Herb Katz said, “It should be allowed in designated areas.”
But Council member Robert Holbrook stated that he “was adamantly opposed to people camping in vehicles in Santa Monica. I think if you have a car and it drives and you want to camp, be my guest. There’s campgrounds on PCH up the coast. I don’t think it’s appropriate to camp on city streets.”
Former Mayor Michael Feinstein told the Council that “rather than booting people out of their vehicles and putting more people on the streets, it’s important to recognize that these people are recently homeless and currently they have a leg up.” He went on to say that the “the Westside Violence Network often reminds us these are often single women who have suffered from domestic violence and fled from it and are fortunate enough to have a vehicle to be in. If you take this opportunity away from them, you’re kicking that one leg out from under them.”
The other four topics that were discussed were abandoned property, lying or sitting on sidewalks, camping in freeway underpasses and off-ramps and closure of the Santa Monica Pier and Memorial Park showers.
A homeless man, David Bush, said that the six areas the City staff report suggested the Council address were really “suggestions for several punitive measures and laws to increase the criminalization of the ongoing homelessness in Santa Monica.”
Another homeless man cautioned the Council. “If you close down the showers on the Pier and at Memorial Park we’re going to smell but we’re still going to be here. We’re us.”
Resident Wally Wallberger said, “Criminalizing homeless people for standing or laying on the sidewalks or for utilizing restrooms for needs such as brushing their teeth will criminalize them for existing. That’s inhumane. You’re not going to stop homelessness that way.”Other residents called for reconvening the Homeless Task Force to address the issues of homelessness, rather than imposing another round of ordinances.