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Santa Monica's Homeless Population Highest in a Decade  

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By Niki Cervantes and Jorge Casuso

May 10, 2017 -- Santa Monica’s homeless population this year totaled 921 people, the largest number counted in a decade and a 26 percent jump over last year, according to the City's 2017 homeless count released Tuesday.

The count -- conducted on Wednesday night January 25 -- reflects a significant increase that upends years of stagnant to declining numbers ("Santa Monica's Homeless Population Declines," March 2, 2016).

It is the highest number of individuals counted in the beachside city since 2007, when 999 individuals were counted during a census taken by the City before the Countywide counts began two years later ("Santa Monica’s Homeless Population Dips Despite Hard Times," February 24, 2009).

Total people living on the street rose 39 percent, from 416 people counted in 2016 to 581 people in this year’s count, according to this year's count.

Those sleeping in vehicles and encampments increased 26 percent, from 73 people counted in 2016 to 92 people this year, while those living in shelters also increased, from 314 to 340.

As has been the case in the past, more than half -- 513, or 53 percent, in this years count -- were living Downtown or on the beach on the night the count was taken ("Half of Street Homeless Live Downtown," March 19, 2009).

"All of our guts said the numbers would probably increase," said Margaret Willis, the adminstrator for the City's Human Services Division. But the number, she said, "is probably higher than we thought it might be."

"More and more people are becoming homeless, and the (social services) infrastructure is not meeting that need," Willis said.

Almost half of the 188 homeless individuals surveyed during Santa Monica’s count said they came from other parts of Los Angeles County; another third said they were from out of state.

Of those surveyed, 29 percent said they had been living in the city for one to five years, 36 percent for more than five years and the balance for less than one year. Twenty-nine percent said they had been living in the city less than a month.

Fifty-four percent of those surveyed said they arrived by bus, 13 percent took the new Expo light rail line and 12 percent said they walked or biked.

City officials said the big increases in homelessness reflects the region’s growing homeless population, although the results of a countywide homeless count for 2017, conducted separately but at the same time, are not expected to be available until June.

“The significant increase since last year demonstrates that the City is directly impacted by the regional homeless crisis,” City spokesperson Constance Farrell said in a statement Tuesday unveiling the findings.

“Last year, the regional count reported in excess of 46,000 people experiencing homelessness and 76 percent living on the street.”

Santa Monica’s approach to helping the homeless focuses first on most vulnerable -– those suffering from chronic homelessness, acute medical needs, or disabilities, Farrell said.

But the City’s service system has been pushed to beyond capacity, she added.

In Santa Monica, that has left ‘the most vulnerable unsheltered and without adequate care,” Farrell said.

The ripples are felt across the city, said Mayor Ted Winterer.

“Homelessness impacts everyone in our city from the individuals suffering on the streets to residents, businesses, and visitors,” he said.

“This issue is one of City Council’s strategic goals and we are invested in regional collaboration to end this crisis.”

Countywide, homelessness increased 5.7 percent in 2016 from the previous year, with those unsheltered rising almost 12 percent, to 34,701 people.

The City of Los Angeles is the epicenter, with a population of 28,464 homeless people in 2016, up 11 percent.

Although West Los Angeles and the South Bay saw increases (9 percent and 10.5 percent, respectively), Santa Monica posted a slight decline, from 738 homeless people in 2015 to 726 people in 2016.

In 2009, the homeless count was 915, which is the baseline by which all counts are now measured. The total dropped to 742 by the next year and, for the most part, has continued to decrease by small percentages since then.

The City’s annual counts, like the biennial counts elsewhere in the county, are used to help apportion federal aid as well as to determine overall needs and costs.

As the homelessness problem has persisted, local governments have started to view it as requiring a regional approach, particularly because the county -- not individual municipalities -- is responsible for so many aspects of care, such as health and mental health services.

Voters countywide approved Measure H in March, which bumps up the sales tax by a quarter cent to raise about $355 million annually for homelessness-related services.

The measure is based on a list of 47 items the county says are needed, from deploying outreach teams of case workers and health specialists to stepping-up substance-abuse programming and bridging housing and services to prevent those at risk from falling into homelessness.

How the money will be allotted is yet to be determined.

Measure H’s passage came on the heels of a $1.2 billion bond measure approved by Los Angeles City voters in November (Measure HHH) for construction of 10,000 units of permanent-supportive housing designed for the City’s chronically homeless population.

But the homeless problem could get worse regardless, some experts say.

Soaring rents and gentrification threaten to push out more of the working-poor and other low-income earners, they say.

“There is a perfect storm of a lot of things that have come to roost," said John Maceri, who heads The People Concern (OPCC), a Santa Monica-based organization that works with the homeless and other needy. "It may get worse before it gets better.”

He said the county is 382,000 units short of meeting demand.

“There is a real housing crisis," Maceri said. "People who are very poor are competing with professionals making good salaries.”

The problem, he said, can be seen across the county, with the homeless population exploding Downtown Los Angeles and in the San Gabriel Valley and growing in communities across the Westside.

Measures H and HHH offer "reason to be optimistic," Maceri said. But he cautioned the promised new housing developments take "a long time to build."

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