A woman of indeterminate age sits in an alley, shouting for help. An old man in a wheelchair with visible sores on his legs begs for “spare change” and asks strangers to buy him a drink. A man sleeps in a doorway, his rag-covered body so resembling a heap of cloth that passersby don’t know that a human being is under the rags.
While everyone in Santa Monica is concerned about the homeless problem, few people know how to go about getting help for particular cases they witness. The Mirror sought some answers to the question: what is the procedure for helping a homeless person? And what are the barriers to getting that help?
Lieutenant Frank Fabrega of the SMPD explains the police procedure as follows: “When the officer has contact with the homeless person, the officer will ask the person ‘Is there somewhere you would like to go?’ If the person says no, that’s the end of it. We cannot forcibly take somebody anywhere against their will.”
Fabrega points out that all citizens, homeless or not, have Constitutional rights. Says Fabrega, “Just because you’re homeless is not a crime.”
If the police receive a call about a homeless person who seems to need medical attention, the police will ask the person if he or she wants to go to a hospital. But again, “If they say they don’t want to go, that’s the end of it.”
What about cases where the homeless person is causing a disturbance or making passersby or residents uncomfortable?
“People aren’t aware of what the law is about,” says Fabrega. “What you’ll find is that crimes are sorted by misdemeanors and felonies. So a lot of the crimes that are involved with homelessness – urination in public, intoxication – are misdemeanors. What happens in law is that unless the officer witnesses the crime, he can’t make an arrest.” Therefore, a private citizen must make an official complaint of having witnessed a crime by a homeless person.
If the homeless person tells the police that he or she wants to get help, say, for alcohol abuse, the police can then ask if the person wants to go to one of the services available for helping people with substance abuse. These services include the CLARE Foundation, OPCC (which has 10 different projects) and Step Up on Second.
Lacey Von Deak, communications associate at CLARE, explains CLARE’s procedure: “First and foremost we are a rehab for substance and alcohol abuse. We can’t deal with every single person who comes through our door. We have referral services and while a lack of ID is not a barrier at CLARE, where we take people in and put them in our beds without an ID, it is a barrier in referring them to a lot of other agencies. What we try to do is get them into our five-day detox and get that ID process started for them.”
Susan Bowling, CLARE’s director of assessments, adds, “If the person had an ID before they became homeless, they can go to the DMV and re-apply – the ID can be traced through their fingerprints. [Having a picture ID] makes them more acceptable for the programs we refer them to.”
One of OPCC’s programs is the emergency shelter Samoshel. Their intake process, as explained by Samoshel director Patricia Bauman, is, “If [the police] bring somebody they picked up on the street and they don’t think this person should be incarcerated, they bring them by the shelter and we take them in. We [also] take people who are released from hospitals so that they will not be released to the street.” Samoshel has 110 beds, of which 10 for men and 10 for women are reserved for short-term emergency stays. Bauman points out that according to City policy, all emergency cases must be brought in by the police – there can be no walk-ins.
Tod Lipka, CEO of Step Up on Second, describes his program as a mental health organization providing therapy and job training for mentally ill individuals. “It happens that about 40 percent of our intakes are individuals who are homeless as well as mentally ill. We don’t take someone who does not have a mental illness.” Individuals seeking help from Step Up must provide proof of a mental disorder such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or depression. Step Up can arrange for an applicant to see a psychiatrist in order to get the diagnosis that can facilitate participation in the Step Up program.
Virgil Hill directs OPCC’s Turning Point project, which provides transitional housing for homeless women. He explains that women can be admitted to Turning Point if they ask to be taken there by the police, but there is a waiting list, as there is for almost all of OPCC’s homeless projects. Also, no one can be admitted if under the influence at the time of admission. “The Turning Point is not a rehab but if they have substance abuse issues, there are 12-step groups here in which they can participate.”
Ultimately, waiting lists and such requirements as verification of a mental illness, can slow down the process for getting aid for a homeless individual. But the various organizations in Santa Monica form what Lipka terms a “continuum of care,” which means that “the various homeless organizations are connected through the City itself. We’re connected electronically. It means that when an individual comes into one organization, if that organization is not the best one for them, they can be connected to one that is right for them.”
For more information on the agencies described in this article:
CLARE Foundation – 1871 9th St., 310.314.6200
Ocean Park Community Center – 1447 16th St., 310.264.6646 and 1616 7th St., 310.450.4050
Samoshel – 310.581.9825
Step Up On Second – 1328 2nd St., 310.394.6889
Turning Point – 1447 16th St., 310.828.6717