Ed Edelman’s City of Santa Monica business card says “Special Representative for Homeless Initiatives.” Unofficially, he is often referred to as the city’s “homeless czar.” But what does he do for the $200,000 salary the City pays for this special “off the books” position?
He says he sees his job as being twofold: first, to address the problems of homelessness in Santa Monica for the benefit of both the homeless and the population at large; and second, to help the Los Angeles region do a more effective job of dealing with the homeless. And to do all of that from a position that – despotic nicknames to the contrary notwithstanding – has no actual political power.
If one were to draft from scratch a resume for the person to undertake such a task, it would likely look very much like Edelman’s. He was an elected official in both the City of Los Angeles, where he served on the City Council from 1965 to 1974, and Los Angeles County, where he was on the Board of Supervisors for 20 years until his retirement from politics in 1994. During his tenure, he showed particular interest in the problems of the mentally ill (the Edelman Westside Mental Health center at Olympic and Sepulveda boulevards is named for him) and the needs of children (the Edelman Children’s Court in Monterey Park is named for him too).
On the specific subject of homelessness, Edelman was a principal force in the establishment of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), a joint powers agency between the city and county. As Edelman tells it, “The city sued the county saying the county caused [the marked increase in] homelessness because it cut General Relief [welfare] benefits; the county sued the city saying it was the city’s fault for taking away housing in the redevelopment of Bunker Hill.” Edelman, then a county supervisor, and Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley worked out a settlement in which LAHSA was formed in 1991 to end the finger-pointing and establish a joint city-county effort to deal with the problem.
As then City Manager Susan McCarthy said in recommending Edelman for his current post in December 2005, “The key things Mr. Edelman will bring to this engagement are credibility and contacts in the mental health field, with the County Sheriff, with elected and appointed officials region-wide and with members of the judiciary.”
Now, almost a year later, Edelman assesses his work as he sits in his City Hall office – surrounded by the photographs and mementos of a career that bear witness to the fact that this office is his full-time working home.
With respect to addressing the problems of homelessness in Santa Monica, Edelman cites two principal accomplishments. The first is moving the feeding programs indoors. After legal efforts to force the programs indoors were unsuccessful, he received a letter from the food providers saying that they wanted to start a new dialog. Edelman, together with City Manager P. Lamont Ewell, had several meetings with representatives of the two largest programs – Hand to Hand and Helping Other People Eat – and reached an agreement to bring the food service indoors to a renovated portion of the Big Blue Bus building at Sixth Street and Colorado Avenue.
This is important for two reasons, Edelman explains. It frees the parks and public areas, and it puts the meals in a setting where social providers are on hand. He is a big believer in the provision of comprehensive social services. “One dollar in early intervention saves three dollars in costs later on,” he says. “This is not just true of homelessness, but for prisons and mental health as well.” He regrets that that message has not caught on with many taxpayers.
Edelman is aware that some of the homeless may not want to talk with the social providers – “service resistant” is his term – but he believes that giving people access to help is important and effective. And he recognizes that the social programs must be effective – “I don’t mean just spending money” – and believes that “Santa Monica does a good job of insisting on results and evaluating programs for effectiveness.”
The second intramural accomplishment is the establishment of the Santa Monica Homeless Community Court scheduled to begin sessions in January. In the past, homeless persons cited for what Edelman calls “quality of life crimes” – sleeping in doorways, public urination, and such – have been directed to appear in court at the “Airport Courthouse” at 11701 S. La Cienega Boulevard. Not surprisingly, those cited often fail to appear on the return date. Judge Bernie Kamins has complained that he could connect many of those cited with needed services, but only if they come to court.
Edelman explains that the Homeless Community Court is based on the Midtown Manhattan Community Court which he studied on a survey of New York’s response to homelessness with others from the Los Angeles region early this year. The new court will deal only with citations issued by Santa Monica Police and will be held one Friday per month (at least to start) in city council chambers at City Hall.
This community court project differs from existing “homeless courts” in that the existing program is designed primarily to expunge the record of old offenses for those who have completed treatment, whereas the Santa Monica Homeless Community Court will deal with current offenses – working on the front end rather than the back end. Once again, “the possibilities for services and treatment” are what excite Edelman about the project. Los Angeles County provided $500,000 to fund the new court.
The county funding for this Santa Monica court project is an example of Edelman’s work in the second task he identified for himself – to get the whole Los Angeles region to do a more effective job of dealing with the homeless. Since he has been on the job, he says, there has been much more effort at the City of Los Angeles and the County levels on the homelessness front. He testified in support of what became a $120 million commitment by Los Angeles County (from which the funding for the new Santa Monica court is coming); Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa has appointed Tori Osborne as that city’s own “special advisor” on homelessness; and there has been a substantial dialog among regional leaders, including foundations as well as government.
“The Los Angeles region has fragmented government with 88 cities in Los Angeles County,” Edelman points out. This makes it more difficult to address a regional problem than would be the case in New York or Philadelphia or Denver, for example. He also notes that New York has put $2 billion into homeless services over a 10-year period.
When he was asked why a special “off the books” position was created for the work he does rather than giving the job to an existing city official, Edelman correctly noted that it was not his decision, but he allowed that he imagined that the city manager and council wanted someone with a reputation and regional clout. A year into the assignment, he has brought a measure of both to bear.