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Santa Monica Is Ninth “Meanest City” in U.S.: City cites inaccuracies in the report

According to the 2006 report of the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) and the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP), which was released last week, Santa Monica ranked 9th and Los Angeles 18th on its list of the nation’s top 20 “meanest cities.”

The report, “A Dream Denied: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities,” tracked the escalating trend of criminalizing homelessness in 224 U.S. cities, and based its city rankings on such factors as the number of anti-homeless laws in the city, enforcement of those laws, the general political climate concerning homeless people in the city, and the city’s history of criminalization measures.

Its focus was specific city measures from 2005 that have targeted homeless persons, such as laws that make it illegal to sleep, eat, or sit in public spaces or placing restrictions on providers serving food to poor and homeless persons in public spaces.

The report also documents criminalization issues in 95 cities and includes a list of criminalization laws in 224 cities, as well as reporting on constitutional challenges to laws and practices that criminalize homelessness and models for more constructive approaches to homelessness.

The two organizations released their last joint report on the topic in 2002. In the 67 cities surveyed in this report and in the 2002 report, there are currently more laws used to target homeless persons, including a 12 percent increase in laws prohibiting begging in certain public places and a 14 percent increase in laws prohibiting sitting or lying in certain public spaces.

Maria Foscarinis, NLCHP Executive Director, noted, “The report highlights these unjust practices and promotes approaches that aim to solve homelessness, rather than make it worse. These practices that target homeless people forced to live in public spaces are not only cruel and counterproductive, but frequently violate homeless people’s constitutional rights.”

While more cities are cracking down on homeless people living in public spaces, cities do not have adequate shelter to meet the need. The U.S. Conference of Mayors report released in December 2005 revealed that 71 percent of the 24 cities surveyed reported a 6 percent increase in requests for emergency shelter, with 14 percent of overall emergency shelter requests unmet and 32 percent of emergency shelter requests by homeless families unmet.

Congress has simultaneously cut key social safety net programs that could help reduce homelessness, according to the report. Legislation passed last month by both the House and Senate proposes to cut Medicaid funding by $4.8 billion and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) assistance by $732 million over the next five years. These cuts are supported by the Bush administration, though one of its stated goals is ending “chronic” homelessness, which is especially prevalent among disabled homeless persons living on the street.

Another trend covered in the report is increased city efforts to target homeless persons indirectly by punishing or placing restrictions on service providers serving food to poor and homeless persons in public spaces.

Chris Cosden, a lawyer in Sarasota, Florida, who has represented homeless clients in court challenges to three different Sarasota anti-lodging laws, said, “These laws attempt to make the lives of homeless people so wretched that they are compelled to go elsewhere . . . for a legislative body to intentionally do that is just plain mean.”

The report also includes information about constitutional challenges to measures that criminalize homelessness.

The top 20 meanest cities cited in the report are: 1. Sarasota, Florida; 2. Lawrence, Kansas; 3. Little Rock, Arkansas; 4. Atlanta, Georgia; 5. Las Vegas; 6. Dallas, Texas; 7. Houston, Texas; 8. San Juan, Puerto Rico; 9. Santa Monica; 10. Flagstaff, Arizona; 11. San Francisco; 12. Chicago; 13. San Antonio, Texas; 14. New York City; 15. Austin, Texas; 16. Anchorage, Alaska; 17. Phoenix, Arizona; 18. Los Angeles; 19. St. Louis, Missouri; and 20. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The report was released just 24 hours before the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s release of a year-long study of data on the homeless population in Los Angeles County, which included a census enumeration of people on the street, in shelters and other institutions; face-to-face interviews; a telephone survey to randomly selected households.

In addition, it analyzed all key data about this population. The 200-page report is the most detailed analysis ever conducted on the homeless population in Los Angeles.

L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has dubbed Los Angeles, with more than 88,000 homeless residents, “the capital of homelessness in America.” In contrast, the New York Times reported Sunday that the homeless population of the five boroughs of New York is 48,155.

Among the study’s key findings are a breakdown of the homeless population by City Council Districts and regions of the county, a general profile of homelessness and other insights to a population that has remained largely invisible.

The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority is an independent unit of local government created in 1993 by the City and County of Los Angeles to address the problems of homelessness on a regional basis. It plans, funds and administers programs throughout Los Angeles County that assist homeless individuals and families in their transition to permanent housing.

Assistant City Manager Judy Rambeau Franz objected to the Coalition’s designation of Santa Monica as one of the “meanest” cities, saying, “We share the same goals of the coalition – ‘to identify and put an end to the social and economic causes of homelessness,’ so it’s unfortunate that their report has inaccuracies about the City of Santa Monica’s policies and initiatives. Here are SOME of the inaccuracies:

“The report states that we have a policy to fine people who provide meals to homeless people in the city parks for clean up costs. Untrue – no such law or policy currently exists, although one Councilmember asked staff to evaluate the costs.

“The report states that the City makes it illegal for homeless persons to set down belongings for more than 10 minutes on any sidewalk, lie or sit on any sidewalk in the city. Untrue – the city prohibits lying or sitting on sidewalks in the Third Street Promenade area only– which is an outdoor pedestrian mall with very heavy foot traffic, as a safety measure. We do prohibit abandoned property on public property by tagging it and collecting it if not moved in 1 hour.

“The report states that City would like to move meals indoors but there is no such location. True and false. We do want food distributors to move meals indoors and are scheduling meetings with food providers to discuss using the City’s emergency shelter (Samoshel). Also, we are building a new access center which will be designed to a accommodate food groups.

“The report states that the city has closed all showers that open before 6 a.m. which serve homeless people who work. Untrue – the city has 10 showers open to the public under the Santa Monica Pier, which open at 5 a.m. All together, there are 21 different showers at 4 facilities available to homeless persons throughout the day.

“The report states that the City proposes that Police now transport anyone found intoxicated in Santa Monica to a new ‘sobriety center’ five miles out of town in Culver City. Untrue – the Sobering Center paired with the urgent care center did not materialize. Instead, the City has partnered with CLARE for an outreach program at the jail.

“The report states that the City has banned all outdoor meals from groups that feed homeless people and laws that ‘literally ban even giving a cookie to any member of the public without a city permit.” Untrue – the City’s law requires a permit if serving outdoor meals to more than 150 people. (This applies to any group of more than 150, not just food distribution groups.) Anyone who lives in Santa Monica – who comes on the weekend to City Hall – can plainly see that there are still organizations feeding the homeless in public areas.

“In reality, the City has been a leader in funding services for homeless individuals to assist individuals get off the street and into services and shelter or housing.

“We spend $1.4 million in local, general fund money, to non profits for homeless services. Most cities only spend federal funds not general funds, which can be used on police, fire, parks, etc. On a per capita basis, we likely spend MORE of these local dollars than any other city of our size on services to the homeless.

“We were one of 11 communities in the entire nation that received funds from HUD for a program to serve chronically homeless people addicted to alcohol, mostly due to our existing programs to serve this population.

“We are leading the charge to advocate for housing for homeless veterans on the VA West Los Angeles campus. We are also on the executive committee of the regional body that is writing the 10-year plan to end homeless in the LA region.

“We are spending our own local funds of $200,000 on a “homeless Czar” to represent the region – Ed Edelman – who is well-respected mental health advocate and former County supervisor and will spearhead regional efforts to reduce homelessness.”

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