At the April 26 Council meeting, I proposed that the City hire a Homeless Initiative Secretary for a period of 18 months. I am writing this column before the meeting. I hope a news story in this edition reports that the Council approved my proposal! (If not, look for a future guest column with a slightly different tone.) Because the item was probably discussed late Tuesday night, I would like to explain the thinking and research behind my proposal.
In my five months on the Council, I have learned a lot. This fact surprised me the most: Of the 2,200 City staff members, only (count ‘em) ONE person is 100% focused on homelessness, and this position is five levels down on the organization chart. Several senior officials spend part of their time dealing with homelessness, but they have other pressing responsibilities (gang violence, park construction and maintenance, cultural services) as well.
For fifteen years this crisis on our streets has been the top concern in Santa Monica. Residents are asking the legitimate question, “Why are the same number of people (some of them the same people) living on our streets as there were in 1990?” Our City must move in a new direction. In the business world, when a firm wants to create real change, it assigns a top-level manager to the job. Santa Monica must do the same thing: Hire a top-level manager who has one responsibility only—To develop new initiatives to alleviate chronic homelessness in Santa Monica and then, make them happen.
Running on a treadmill is a worthwhile activity, but it will not take you anywhere new. Our City has enough staff to “run in place,” monitoring the homeless services we currently fund, which help many people. But the chronically homeless—who cannot function in these programs because of untreated mental illness, addictions, or both—continue living in our parks, on the Promenade, and in our carports. For chronically homeless people to move off the streets and into housing, the City needs a world-class athlete who can get off the treadmill, run the race on a new course, and cross the finish line.
Since I was elected in November, I and my volunteer staff have spent 40-50 hours each week researching new ideas, meeting service providers and legal officials, meeting Veterans’ Administration officials in West Los Angeles, speaking with local foundations and regional elected officials. We are moving as fast as we can, but it is not fast enough.
That is why, at the April 26 Council meeting, I proposed that the City hire a Homeless Initiative Secretary for an initial period of 18 months. The Secretary will report directly to the City Manager and be assisted by a working group composed of two or three Council members; all City staff members currently responsible for homelessness issues, including representatives of the police, fire, and city attorney’s office; and three homelessness experts working as volunteers.
The Secretary’s “finish line” will not be to solve homelessness; that requires the state and federal governments to focus on it. Instead, our goals are specific, regional, and actually achievable. They will reduce the impacts of homelessness, both on the homeless and the housed. Based on five months of extensive research and groundwork, we offer the following goals for the Homeless Initiative Secretary:
— Coordinate neighboring cities to share responsibility for alleviating homelessness in the region by establishing close working relationships with officials of Culver City, West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, and Los Angeles, as well as Los Angeles County, and the court system.
— Open a sobering center at the former Santa Monica city jail or near the Brotman Medical Center in West Los Angeles. To remove a public inebriant from the streets, police currently must spend valuable time (which could be used to deal with more serious crimes) booking that individual—only to see him or her back in the same place and condition the next day. Police are reluctant to go through this ineffective process. This new program will relocate public inebriates from carports and parks into housing and treatment. To read about the success and cost effectiveness of such a program in San Diego, go to http://clerkdoc.sannet.gov/cmr/cmrfieldsearch.html and request report 01-013.
— Design and implement an alternative charging system for homeless individuals based on the Streets or Services program operated by the LAPD, PATH and the LA city attorney’s office. People arrested for crimes associated with homelessness such as loitering or public inebriation are given the choice of jail time or housing with services designed to help them stay off the streets. Individual progress is monitored by the court, with repeat offenders sentenced to jail time. This program has saved money and helped people in downtown Los Angeles. It can do the same on the Westside.
— Design and implement a mental health/substance abuse court based on the one that is working in Santa Clara County. The program, which deals with more serious crimes, would be operated by the Los Angeles Superior Court. It gives a judge discretion to order eligible mentally ill homeless individuals to monitored treatment programs instead of jail. Police like it because it gives a positive result, unlike the current “revolving door” situation.
— Foster development of a supportive housing facility for chronic homeless individuals on the Westside, as well as a facility for chronic homeless veterans in one of the empty buildings on the VA grounds in West Los Angeles. This goal may sound very expensive, but several recent and very thorough studies show that this type of housing (including the expense of creating it) costs LESS than maintaining individuals on the streets, where they consume enormous amounts of public funds in the form of homeless, paramedic, and hospital services, as well as police and jail time. The studies on the “housing first” model can be found at www.csh.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=document.showDocumentList&parentID=43.
— Expand the City’s pilot outreach program for chronic homelessness in Santa Monica. This small program (serving 12 individuals who have lived on our streets for more than 10 years) has shown some success and should serve more people.
— Consult local hospitals and foundations regarding contributing funds to these initiatives. Hospitals now spend enormous amounts on medical care for homeless people. Once the programs above are established, homeless people will use fewer hospital services, saving the hospitals money—some of which could be contributed to fund the programs.
— Audit existing programs and recommend innovative approaches that cities in the region could undertake to alleviate homelessness. We must be sure that taxpayer dollars are being protected. Any new program must be fiscally responsible. The ones outlined above meet this requirement, since they would save money.
Various people will oppose this idea. They will say we have enough staff, that the current programs are making good progress, that we must wait for the state and federal governments. Some people fear change.
I do not.
Nor do most of the people who speak with me in the coffee shops, delis, and everywhere in the city. They want something new to happen and they want it NOW. In fact, they ask me, “Why haven’t you done anything yet?” They are willing to try. So am I. For the people living in our public spaces and for those who feel they can no longer use them, we must try. Change will not occur without a top-level manager working fulltime to turn our goals into reality.
BULLETIN: At last night’s Council meeting, Shriver’s motion that the City Manager move immediately to fill the position he described passed by a 4-2 vote. Mayor Pam O’Connor and Council member Richard Bloom cast the nay votes. Council member Ken Genser was absent.