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Homelessness: Together Let’s End This Disgrace:

City Councilmember Kevin McKeown

Special to the Mirror

 

Stop trying to manage the local crisis.  Instead, commit to ending the national disgrace.  That was a key message at the May 11 national summit on homelessness in Denver.  There to represent you, I was listening hard for how we in Santa Monica can find relief from the burden of homelessness. 

We should be proud of Santa Monica’s history of compassionate willingness. We’ve addressed as best we could a problem not of our own making, even when that problem literally ended up on our doorsteps.  Much of what we have done has been effective in helping those ready to get off the streets, but our efforts have been overwhelmed by sheer numbers.  While reaching out to the willing, until recently we didn’t often connect well with the neediest, as well as the most visible and vexing, street people.  The “chronic homeless” are those who’ve been without housing for a number of years.

Untreated mental illness, drug abuse and alcoholism among the chronic homeless are serious public health issues, but almost impossible to treat on the street.  They create unending police and medical calls, costing us precious resources better put to other use.  With recent grants, Santa Monica has begun helping the chronic homeless by first and foremost getting such people housed, a strategy called “housing first.”

Newly compiled information indicates focusing on housing, not just services, can yield significant results.  Our summit host city Denver’s homeless count is down 11 percent in the past year, thanks to 400 new units of housing and a significant jobs initiative from Denver’s hospitality industry.

Results are trickling in from other areas that have tried the “housing first” approach, and Santa Monica’s new thinking is right: it actually costs a community less to house the homeless than to endlessly dispatch police and medical personnel. Those expensive and disruptive services are not needed, or needed far less, when a person is simply housed.

Along with former Mayor Richard Bloom, Santa Monica “Homelessness Czar” (and former County Supervisor) Ed Edelman and Assistant to the City Manager for Government Relations, Kate Vernez, I attended a series of presentations and workshops in Denver organized by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, the federal agency coordinating state and regional efforts.

Reprising my role with our own local Westside Cities Council of Governments, where years ago I raised the issue of shared social services, I asked one Denver workshop about cooperative regionalism.  Our efforts here to involve all of Los Angeles County in addressing homelessness together are paralleled throughout California, from San Diego to San Jose, and across the nation in communities as distant and varied as Hartford, Las Vegas, Miami and Anchorage.

Los Angeles County’s recent commitment of $100 million in one-time money and almost $20 million in ongoing funding holds real promise for Santa Monica. When regions work cooperatively, particularly where they provide real housing opportunities besides just services, the results are striking.  A survey in New York City last month showed a 13 percent drop in people on the streets over the past year.  Chronic homelessness is down 26 percent in Dallas during the same time.

In Santa Monica, of course, housing is particularly expensive.  How can we possibly afford to provide housing to the chronically homeless?  Perhaps the question should be how can we afford not to?  Community after community has seen the hidden costs of homelessness, including those to hospitals and local businesses, cut dramatically in amounts that strongly suggest a “housing first” policy may simply be sensible economics.

Our Denver keynote speaker Jim Collins, author of bedrock business bibles like Built to Last and Good to Great, urged cities to base homelessness policy on verified data, and to stick with proven strategies.  Santa Monica’s choice of the Urban Institute to rigorously evaluate our programs will help move our homelessness efforts from “good to great.”

Council colleague Bobby Shriver has helped infuse new energy, and Santa Monica, thanks to aggressive grant-seeking by City staff, has been able to use federal money for the first phase of our concentration on housing the chronic homeless.  That money won’t last, though, and other cities don’t have even that. U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness Executive Director Philip Mangano was everywhere during the summit, sharing his enthusiasm.  In Mangano, the Bush Administration has provided a great quarterback – unfortunately, without also funding a team.

“Housing first” isn’t the whole answer to the national disgrace of homelessness, but it’s a new and effective component.  We still must provide our existing “continuum of care” services for those ready to help themselves. At the same time, we can’t countenance the anti-social behaviors by which a few among the homeless make life more difficult for all the rest of us. Let’s get those predators and lawbreakers off the streets, then work together to help homeless people who want and deserve our compassion and real assistance.

We came back from Denver knowing Santa Monica has done well in our decades of struggle to balance compassion for the poor with the impact homelessness has on our small town, but we need no longer be alone.  With new cooperation, a focus on the chronic homeless and a commitment to “housing first,” perhaps we can surrender the impossible task of trying to manage the local crisis. A society that has allowed its social safety net to fray and fail should not be surprised when as a result more people hit bottom.  Let’s end this national disgrace.

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