Santa Monica’s response to homelessness has been going on for so long, it has its own evolution. As Darwin predicted, intelligence is surviving. Over the past 16 years, two idealistic, polarized mindsets have moved together to occupy a new pragmatic middle ground. From this ground, relief is beginning to spring up, for both the homeless and the housed.
The early years were definitely not the good old days. The first time I remember Santa Monicans naming homelessness as the city’s worst problem was when Concerned Homeowners of Santa Monica surveyed 11,000 homeowners in 1989. In response to the survey and the growing number of encampments in city parks, CHOSM planned a conference on homelessness with city officials and the public, to be held in the Main Library auditorium.
At that time, a group of homeless men were more or less based at the library, making good use of the public computers there to network with each other and their supporters on PEN, a prehistoric city-sponsored chat room. When they heard about the conference, one man who identified himself as homeless accused CHOSM of “wanting to run us out of town on a rail.” Another wrote, “The only way to deal with the Concerned Homeowners is with bullets.” I still remember his name.
The conference itself was a good exchange of views and information (no gunfire), but in the following months and years, the dialogue grew very loud and shrill. Two camps—each named by the other—emerged: The “Bleeding Hearts,” who believed in opening our pocketbooks to panhandlers and our parks to whoever wanted to live there; and the “Heartless,” who considered homeless people freeloaders best treated with “bus therapy” (free bus tokens to leave the city). People who sought a more balanced approach were—despite their protests—also lumped into one camp or the other. We were off to a really bad start.
We have had 16 years to learn, think, and evolve. We have now concluded that Santa Monica must insist on regional solutions to homelessness and not try to locate every facility within our 8.3 square miles. Besides that, former “Bleeding Hearts” now realize that unconditionally helping anyone who asks does reach some genuinely needy people, but also enables those who chose to live on the streets to do so indefinitely. Likewise, the “People Formerly Known as Heartless” now understand that many individuals live on the streets because they truly have no choice. Maybe they did once, but not anymore. These are the chronic homeless, the most visible and — because of untreated mental illness or addictions — the hardest to reach and house.
Ironically, it is the chronic homeless—the “most homeless” of the homeless—who are moving Santa Monicans toward a middle ground, because everyone agrees that the chronic homeless should not be living in our parks, carports, doorways, and on the Promenade. People’s reasons run the gamut from religious/humanitarian conviction, business/tourist considerations, annoyance, and health issues, to fear for personal safety. Nearly everyone in the city has a motivation to help solve this particular problem.
Until a year ago Santa Monica was making no concerted effort to move chronic homeless people into services and housing. The city supports many homeless services, which have helped thousands of people, but these services are designed for those who can follow the programs’ rules, which mentally ill people and addicts cannot do. The city began a chronic homeless pilot program last summer. Of the 25 people enrolled in the program, 10 have been placed in permanent housing, three are in temporary housing, one died, and all have a service plan. This month Santa Monica will receive a HUD grant of $700,000 to continue and expand the program. We were one of 10 communities selected nationwide.
I believe the Housing First model, used to move chronically homeless people directly off the streets, is the next logical step in Santa Monica’s evolution. Housing First is the reverse of the traditional rehabilitation program, which requires abstinence before the person can be housed. In the Housing First model, a homeless individual is immediately placed in housing that is linked to supportive medical, psychological, and other appropriate services. Think about it—if you were an alcoholic or drug addict, would you have a better chance to turn your life around if you had a place to live or if you were trying to survive on the street? Beating an addiction is one of the hardest things a person can do under any circumstances. Look at rock star Courtney Love, well-housed with all kinds of rehab resources. She’s still having trouble.
I believe using the Housing First model will dissolve at least two more points of contention in the Santa Monica homeless dialogue:
1. We can stop arguing about whether alcoholics and drug addicts deserve help. After 16 years, we have plenty of empirical evidence to prove that the chronically homeless substance abusers are going to stay on our streets unless we provide housing and intensive services to keep them housed. Nobody disputes that we should do this for the mentally ill homeless, who clearly cannot help themselves. Some people say the substance abusers should straighten themselves out; others say addiction is a disease that requires intervention. But that argument becomes pointless as soon as we think beyond it: What if we decide not to help the substance abusers get off the streets, because they should be helping themselves? Answer: They simply keep living on the streets. The police can arrest them if they break a law, but they are released back on the streets within 48 hours. We don’t want substance abusers living on our streets, and housing them is the only way to accomplish that, whether we believe they “deserve it” or not.
2. We can stop arguing about money. Housing First is not necessarily free housing. Many disabled homeless people receive monthly checks that can be applied to their rent. Many more can receive public assistance if someone helps them collect it. Several studies have shown that it is cheaper to maintain an individual in a Housing First program than in a shelter. And Housing First is astronomically cheaper than paying the paramedic, police, hospital, and/or jail costs incurred by chronically homeless people now. A San Diego study tracked the expense of chronically homeless people for 18 months and found that they cost the city and county more than $3 million, an average of $200,000 per person. Even more disconcerting was the fact that each of the 15 individuals was in a no better situation or condition at the end of the 18 months. Housing First programs in cities such as New York and San Francisco have 85 percent retention and stability rates. It’s hard to work up much of an argument against a program that is more effective and costs less.
Call me overly optimistic (no one ever has), but I think Santa Monica is on the right track here. Our elected officials, volunteers, city staff, and business people—working together and with other cities—are exploring new ways to help the most visible and needy segment of the homeless population. Our homeless policy is evolving in a way that will improve people’s lives.Jean Sedillos has been active in Santa Monica civic and school issues for 28 years and is now working with City Councilman Bobby Shriver on the Housing First program.