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Meet the New Boss, Same As the old Boss?

By Charlyce Bozzello

At Tuesday's Santa Monica City Council meeting, Councilmembers will review and respond to a recent staff report on homelessness.

It should be good news for the nearly 45 percent of residents who have said homelessness should be the city’s top priority. But those expecting sweeping action will be sorely disappointed.

Instead of offering a new way forward, the staff report recommends doubling down on the city’s current homelessness prevention plan -- the plan responsible, in part, for the terrible status quo.

Between 2017-2019, Santa Monica allocated $3 million in general funds for homelessness prevention; in the 2019-2021 biennial budget, the city dedicated another $3 million to fighting homelessness ("Council Approves Nearly $713 Million Belt-Tightening Budget for Upcoming Fiscal Year," June 26, 2019).

The total spent is considerably larger when you add in general fund outlays in other departments.

Several of the city’s departments, including the fire, police, and public works departments, also address city needs related to homelessess.

It’s difficult to pinpoint how much of their resources go directly to this issue; for instance, the staff report notes that between 2019-2020, the Santa Monica Fire Department responded to almost 3,000 homeless-related calls -- making up 18 percent of the department’s total responses.

The city's current approach resulted in an eight percent decrease in homelessness between 2019 and 2020, which staff uses as validation.

City Hall should be reminded that this recent decrease in homelessness still left Santa Monica with more than 900 homeless people -- an increase of 25 percent since 2016.

Compare that to neighboring beach cities: In 2020, Manhattan Beach had 15 people in their homeless count, Hermosa Beach reported 28 people, and even Redondo Beach reported 176.

The staff report also brings to mind the old Marx brothers line: "Who are you going to believe: Me, or your lying eyes?"

Residents can see for themselves that homelessness has gotten out of control in their city. Public parks and the beach are home to encampments, and many no longer feel safe in the city’s public spaces.

It’s no wonder a recent poll found almost 80 percent of residents thought homelessness had gotten worse in just the past month ("Poll Finds Residents Waiting for New Council to Act on Crime and Homelessness," February 17, 2021).

The staff report does acknowledge that the current homelessness crisis has only been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. But an unprecedented problem should call for an unprecedented solution -- not the same old song and dance.

In 2019, LA County and neighboring beach cities showed leadership by joining an amicus brief in support of the city of Boise, ID, which had petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn a district court ruling that ties cities' hands on enforcing camping ordinances. (Santa Monica did not join this brief.) The city's new leadership may need to test the limits of what's possible.

There is no excuse for inaction. Homelessness is no doubt a regional issue, but similar beachside cities have fared far better in their efforts to control it.

Contrary to this staff report, it’s not clear that the city’s chosen game plan is the right strategy needed to fix this growing issue.

It’s time for the City Council to take bold action -- not just reaffirm the current status quo. Santa Monica residents shouldn't get fooled again.

Charlyce Bozzello is the communications director at the Center for Union Facts

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