In a July 30 essay in the LA Times, UCLA School of Law professor Gary Blasi made several observations about our town’s relationship to the constituency referred to as “the homeless.” Unfortunately, to grab attention, the piece was headlined “Santa Monica’s Homeless Headache” and sub-headlined “Good works are no defense if one person is mistreated.”
As readers of the Mirror may know, this column has gone to some (often long winded) lengths to make distinctions within the ranks of “the homeless” of Santa Monica. Most recently I appealed for clarity in focus on the issue of people camping in RV’s and trailer homes on city streets; specifically that some folks had made a life choice to live for free anywhere they might park their wheeled home and that decision didn’t necessarily enter them into the constituency deserving of the resources needed to help those who have been overwhelmed by circumstance, economic hardship, medical woes, substance abuse, and the other very real elements of homelessness.
Ultimately, a 45 year-old man who is so alcoholic that he’s not maintaining an address arrives at homelessness by a different route than a woman with a child who was abused and then abandoned and left destitute by her 45 year-old alcoholic husband. This is why I still have difficulty articulating on these subjects, although both parties need and deserve our help. So for purposes of clarity in this piece, I’ll use the term “the constituency” meaning all categorized “homeless” and implying deserved respect for all in need.
In his piece Blasi opened by pointing to a suit brought by the ACLU against our city “regarding the treatment of homeless people with disabilities…” So, early on, Blasi does not use quotes or otherwise qualify his use of the word “homeless” in his text. In that way, anyhow, his article began by reinforcing use of the term to mean the highly diversified constituency of all people somehow living on or in relationship to “the streets.” Blasi frames the premise of his essay by pointing out that Santa Monica possibly spends more per capita on “homeless” (my quotes) issues and has more shelter beds per capita than any city in the state, and he wants to know why, if we’re so open and giving to the constituency, there’s this ACLU case. Specifically Blasi asks, “So what’s going on?”
Blasi alleges that Santa Monica has taken actions in the past that encourage the constituency to “move on” in certain specific scenarios and that, coupled with the ACLU suit, this indicates that we are a conflicted city. In closing, he says that if the ACLU allegations are true, “then Santa Monica should address the policies and problems behind them and not hide behind a defense that the city also has good programs for “the homeless.”” This time, at the end of his piece, he does finally delineate with quotation marks.
Okay, professor, let’s look at one of your possible “move on” events; the situation at Palisades Park. A few years back, the city closed the park area to make needed renovations. To some extent, that need was the result of the area having literally become a camping area for the constituency. It was alleged at the time that the closing was motivated by a desire to frustrate the constituency into–that’s right Mr. Blasi– “moving on.” But in that specific case, persons displaced by the city’s clear right to renovate and make improvement on a major tourist and pedestrian area were informed of resources and shelters and ways to get into a system to work on substance problems. What’s happened since the area has reopened? It’s still, to some extent, a ‘hang’ for the constituency and others drawn to its fringe such as often serious-minded young people backpacking across America, etc.
Another possible “move on” action: There are personnel in the SM Police department who have been specially trained to address repeat scenarios such as people sleeping in alleys and areas adjoining someone’s home. I’ve met several of the officers involved in the program, and I’m convinced that any indication made by them that someone crashed in an alley or a backyard should “move on” related to moving on with their lives… by getting help and finding a bed in a shelter here in Santa Monica, and not to just relocate their problems to Manhattan Beach.
Santa Monica remains admirably preoccupied with outreach and resources dedicated to the constituency, just as the ACLU remains dedicated to pursuing what it pursues regardless of what they often know to be true about the best efforts of a city to help those in need. But unless Mr. Blasi has access to the ACLU’s evidence and is convinced that their suit justifies what it alleges, he should apologize for his misleading headline and his allegation that this town hides behind good deeds. Santa Monica responds generously and humanely to the constituency, and knowing this we have no “headache.” Far from being conflicted at any level, our city is currently coordinating with other LA cities to ensure a more complete and useful approach. Mr. Blasi, I’ve been to meetings and I’ve seen what people are doing here. True, I feel that the administration of responses needs to be mitigated by the reality that “the homeless” is a multi-faceted mix of persons in need. But we’re on it here, chief, right out in the open. Nobody is hiding.