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City Reorganizes Staff to Tackle Homelessness

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

July 5 -- As Santa Monica embarks with renewed vigor, funding and personnel to fight homelessness across the Westside, the City's department in charge of homeless services is in the midst of a major reorganization.

Julie Rusk -- the manager for the Human Services Division, which oversees homeless services in the city -- will leave on a one-year sabbatical in late August. Her departure comes soon after the City's homeless coordinator, Joel Schwartz, left the City due to illness.

Rusk's position will be filled by Mona Miyasato, a top official from the City Manager's office, who, in addition to running the division, will be responsible for a new team of City employees dubbed the "homeless unit," which will be in charge of tackling homeless issues.

The unit, Rusk said, will consist of two current City employees. One has already replaced Schwartz, while the second will work on homeless issues on a part-time basis. In addition, two new staff members will be dedicated full-time to coordinating and funding homeless services.

The unit of four -- who will report directly to Human Services Administrator Stacey Rowe -- represents a renewed focus by the City on homeless services inside Santa Monica and not just a reshuffling of existing staff and personnel, Rusk said.

"This unit shows there is definitely a beefing up of homeless services in Santa Monica," she said. "But the transition will take a couple of months to complete."

Rusk estimates it will take two months to hire the new staff. In the meantime, the slots will be filled on a temporary basis with current City staff.

While many City officials said that the change is a positive step and that they believe the transition will be smooth despite Rusk's departure, at least one City Council member worries about the timing of Rusk's one-year absence.

"It's tough -- a blow to the efforts when the number one person leaves," said Council member Bobby Shriver, who has made tackling the City's homeless problem one of his top priorities. "Mona(Miyasato) is great, but she doesn't have the experience that Julie has in handling (homeless) issues.

"It would be a lot better if Julie weren't leaving, but there's nothing to be done about it," Shriver said. "I think it says a lot that Susan is putting the best person out of her own office on it."

Shriver sponsored an initiative approved by the council last month to create a homeless secretary position to act as a liaison and coordinate services with other cities, the County and State.

"With all the new staff positions and good will of the state, County and governor moving forward with the regional plan, Santa Monica itself could be left behind," Shriver said.

The $200,000 homeless liaison -- who will handle homeless issues at the regional level -- will not be involved in coordinating homeless services inside Santa Monica, regardless of the changes in the Human Services Division, City officials said.

In addition, the council has recently backed several initiatives to create a center for chronic alcoholics, a mental health facility and additional temporary shelters on the Westside, all of which have stalled in the last few months due to a backlash by surrounding communities. (see related story)

However, there appears to be an unprecedented commitment to tackle the regional homeless problem after the County Board of Supervisors last month earmarked nearly $25 million to build and upgrade shelters and administer homeless services. (see related story)

Santa Monica officials are confident that the local reorganization will be smooth and create an opportunity to focus on a problem that has plagued Santa Monica for decades.

"I think that filling the position with someone from our office that is so competent signals the importance we place on homelessness," said City Manager Susan McCarthy, who is in charge of personnel changes for the City.

Calling Miyasato "extraordinarily equipped" to deal with the transition period, McCarthy said she believes the City has the staff to keep moving forward on homelessness until Rusk returns.

"We have a very talented staff," McCarthy said. "We believe Julie is an extraordinary talent, and we would only grant a leave of absence in extraordinary cases."

Mayor Pam O'Connor echoed McCarthy's optimism.

"Clearly Rusk brings a lot of depth and capacity to the position," O'Connor said. "It's too bad she won't be there to be part of this exciting time. Flexibility needs to be built in to any organization to respond to change as it happens."

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