Many thanks to Terence Lyons, Staff Writer, for the terrific story about “RAND Rethinks Homelessness” in the March 1-7, 2007 issue. The unfortunate part of this issue is that all people do is think about it, study it and talk about it, but not DO anything to alleviate it. RAND has “studied” the problem for 20 years! What has that accomplished? The overly inflated rents are not going to make things any easier to place the homeless persons into proper housing. However, I appreciate the press exposure.
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In his letter (Santa Monica Mirror, March 8-14), Randy Walburger made several sensible criticisms of the remarks that panelists made at a recent RAND forum on homelessness. And, in modified form, Walburger’s proposal of camping facilities may be an excellent short-term solution for many of our homeless persons in Santa Monica.
The panelists promoted the “housing first model,” whereby homeless persons are moved directly from the street into permanent supportive housing. But we cannot assume that this approach, which reportedly has been successful in New York and San Francisco, would be as effective here. The shear number of homeless persons in Southern California is greater, meaning it will take more time and money and space to provide the necessary housing.
Second, and perhaps more important, the warm, dry climate makes being homeless here more comfortable than elsewhere. The elements are not as big a factor here in motivating people to enter programs that can lead to housing and income. For those who already have disability income, the good weather makes more attractive the option of forgoing housing in order to have money to spend on drugs and alcohol.
Public camping facilities could give homeless persons a place to sleep while they wait for the County and municipalities to expand permanent supportive housing programs. However, having pleasant campgrounds with all the amenities might make being homeless an even more appealing option to some persons than it already is.
Therefore, instead of standard campgrounds, we should have what could be called “virtual shelters.” Because of our weather and our situation by the beach, we could create them literally overnight by drawing lines in the sand. For example, at the beach, showers and toilets already exist. There are also toilets in some parks and farmers’ market sites. What we don’t have is the staff, namely police and auxiliaries, to supervise the virtual shelters and to enforce a strict ban on sleeping outside elsewhere in the city and on the beach.
The virtual shelters would not allow tents; nor would they allow drugs, alcohol or tobacco. During the cold, rainy months the virtual shelters could move under large tents or temporary structures similar to the one that housed the “Ashes and Snow” art exhibit on the parking lot by the pier last spring.
To some of the homeless, such virtual shelters would be less attractive than the unsupervised territories they now occupy on beaches, on sidewalks and in parks. Forcing them into emergency shelters, including virtual shelters, could motivate them to try to get incomes and housing via participation in mental health, drug and alcohol rehabilitation and vocational rehabilitation programs. Many such programs already exist.