The number of homeless people living in Santa Monica is down nearly 20 percent from last year according to the City’s annual Homeless Count, conducted January 27 from 12 a.m. to 3 a.m. The results were presented at the February 22 Social Services Commission meeting.
This reduction continues the trend from the 2007 to 2009 counts, which reflected an eight percent drop. This year also marked the City’s departure from conducting the count biannually (as required by federal and regional mandates) to conducting the count annually. The decision to count yearly stems from the goals of the Action Plan to Address Homelessness, adopted by the City Council in February 2008. This explains why the 2007 and 2009 counts skipped 2008.
One of the guiding principles of the Action Plan is to reduce street homelessness. In 2009, the count found a 915 total homeless population and this year the count was 742, down 18.9 percent (and down 25 percent from 2007). In that regard, the results indicate success. But some questioned those numbers, given the economic situation in California and nationally.
“I’m surprised, I expected more,” said Nancy Geshke, a Social Services Commissioner and development director of T.H.E. Clinic. Geshke went on to add that she has seen 30 percent more patients in the last year. “Where are those people going?”
Randy Walburger, of the Side by Side forum on homelessness, questioned how it is possible to have a reduction in the number of homeless in Santa Monica while the unemployment rate continues to rise.
City Councilmember Richard Bloom responded to these concerns, saying that alternate methods of counting will supplement the Homeless Count results to paint a more comprehensive picture of homelessness in the City. One such instance will be when the Census Bureau conducts its own count at the end of March.
“At this point, there isn’t a cohesive account for that drop,” he said. “We have a huge amount of work ahead of us… But this gives us optimism.”
Representatives of the Homeless Count were quick to point out that it reflects a point-in-time statistic. The count is conducted at night to achieve another of the Action Plan’s guiding principles: To direct limited housing and resources to the needs of priority populations. By conducting the count at night, the most vulnerable (those sleeping outside in January) have a better chance of being accounted for. Additionally, the homeless are less likely to be on the move at night, reducing the chance of double-counting.
Other key findings indicated a 68 percent reduction in the number of identified encampments and 59 percent reduction in the number of people identified as living in cars compared to 2009.
A further breakdown of this year’s 742 total includes 264 on the streets; 423 in institutions (shelters, hospitals, jails and hotels); and 53 in cars, vans, RVs or encampments.
The largest concentrations of homeless were downtown, with clusters around the beach and popular streets such as Colorado, Olympic, and Wilshire. Julie Rusk, human services manager for the City, said that Santa Monica’s homeless are disproportionately single adults, mentally ill, and/or substance abusers.
“Beyond the statistics are the real people we work with every day,” said John Maceri, executive director of OPCC, referencing the importance of not only counting the City’s homeless, but also making sure they are more than a faceless number. Services are important, but the ultimate goal is housing, he said. “This work is a marathon, not a sprint. It is about one person – one life at a time.”