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It's Deja Vu for Santa Monica's Homeless Policies

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By Jorge Casuso

April 26, 2022 -- "City Begins Major Shift in Homeless Policies." "Homeless Account for High Percentage of Arrests." "Homelessness Again Tops List of Resident Concerns." These are some of the headlines that made local news two decades ago. And they continue in 2022.

That the problem still persists after hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars have been spent is reflected in the numbers -- in 2008, 999 homeless people were counted in Santa Monica. In 2020, it was 985.

Over the past three decades Santa Monica has taken sometimes radical steps to address the problem -- from cracking down on the homeless to providing them with free housing to a carrot and stick approach that combines both.

Following are some of the major steps -- and radical turns -- the City that has been dubbed "The Home of the Homeless" has taken over the past 30 years.

On April 26, 1994, with two new Councilmembers elected to tackle homelessness and crime, the Council scrapped its permissive policies that had turned City parks into campgrounds.

In a groundbreaking vote forced by the threat of a voter referendum, the Council approved a 100-person shelter that paved the way for cracking down on those who slept in the parks.

The Council removed "loopholes from the park closure law that allowed people to remain in the parks while they were asleep" and banned aggressive panhandling, according to an April 28, 1994 report in the LA Times.

The key proponents of the measure -- anti-Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights (SMRR) Councilmembers Bob Holbrook and Asha Greenberg -- argued that the $1.3 million the City spent on homeless services served as a magnet.

Mayor Judy Abdo countered, “To think (the money) is being squandered or wasted is wrong,” It is a debate that continues to rage today.

But the crackdown failed to reduce the number of homeless who flocked to the city. Eight years later in 2002, an internal report found that the number of homeless people who received services the previous year grew by 25 percent to more than 2,500.

Exacerbated by the stock market "crash" that tanked the economy, the growing numbers exceeded "present and foreseeable capabilities" and overwhelmed the City's extensive social service network, the report found (Growing Homeless Population Taxes City Services, Report Finds," September 23, 2002).

Not all the findings were bleak. According to the report, the current "continuum of care" model was helping many of the estimated 4,000 homeless who circulated through the city every year find work and shelter.

But in the wake of the report's key findings, the Council prepared to take the first major step in eight years to further crack down on the homeless.

Pushed by Downtown officials, the proposed measures included enforcing strict health codes and making it illegal to sleep in Downtown storefront doorways at night ("Council to Consider Feeding, Sleeping Ordinances," September 24, 2002).

Former City Attorney Bob Myers, who was ousted in 1992 by a SMRR Council led by former Mayor Denny Zane for refusing to enforce the City's anti-camping laws, weighed in. ("OPINION -- Outlawing Feeding Programs," September 23, 2002).

"Contrary to the City’s proffered justifications, this ordinance is not about concern for the quality of food served to homeless people," Myers wrote in an Opinion piece in The Lookout. "It is not about the need for park space for other uses.

"Make no mistake about it," Myers wrote. "This ordinance aims to drive homeless people out of Santa Monica. Since 1991, the City has pursued a four-part strategy to run homeless people out of town."

The September 24, 2002 Council meeting was continued after 141 speakers -- some of them defiant and teary eyed -- packed the council chamber.

The following meeting, with the media spotlight once again trained on Santa Monica's homeless problem, the Council approved the two measures ("Council Approves Measures to Curb Feeding, Sleeping," October 9, 2002).

Voting 5 to 2, it passed an ordinance that made providing meals without County and City permits in a public park or space a misdemeanor punishable with a maximum of six months in jail or a $1,000 fine, or both.

The Council also unanimously approved an ordinance that tightened antiquated trespassing laws to prohibit sleeping between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. in storefront doorways in the Downtown. The law also imposed a maximum $1,000 fine or six months in County jail, or both.

That month, a report compiled by Police Chief James T. Butts Jr. showed that during the past five years, transients accounted for more than one-third of those arrested in Santa Monica for violating parole ("Homeless Account for High Percentage of Parole, Sex Offender Arrests," October 14, 2002).

Of the 1,113 persons arrested for parole violations since 1997, 427 (or 38 percent) were transients, although Santa Monica's homeless population represented approximately 1,000 persons on any given day, according to the report presented to the Council.

In addition, transients made up nearly one quarter of all registered sex offenders (13 of 59) and accounted for 67 percent (48 of 72) of those arrested for failing to comply with sexual offender registration requirements.

A year and a half after the Council voted to get tough on the homeless flocking to Santa Monica, data showed the new laws had little visible impact ("Homeless Laws Get Mixed Results," May 12, 2004).

The law to ban sleeping in Downtown doorways had led to a series of arrests that indicated the problem was not going away. And despite the law restricting the distribution of free food in public parks, large numbers of homeless people could still be seen standing in long lines in the city’s feeding hotspots throughout the week.

In October 2004, a draft plan was released that proposed to end homelessness in Los Angeles County in ten years. The welcome plan would mark a shift in Santa Monica's get-tough policies ("Draft Plan to End Homelessness Draws Accolades," October 8, 2004).

The proposed multi-pronged approach crafted by the Bring LA Home blue ribbon committee included 300 recommendations to “prevent and end homelessness” for the estimated 84,000 unhoused persons in the region.

“People have become complacent about homelessness, but 25 years ago, there were not masses of homeless people on the streets,” Mitchell Netburn, chief of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), told an appreciative Santa Monica crowd.

“The homeless problem snowballed after the 1980s, when we began to see more and more people sleeping in doorways,” Netburn said. “We have been managing the problem, but not making the changes required to solve it. We need to think differently.”

Less than a year later, in 2005, -- spurred by the prospect of getting some of the $28 million in County funding for shelter, housing and services -- the City began emphasizing the regional approach.

After a decade of trying a carrot-and-stick approach, the Council began shifting its focus from service-oriented policies to providing housing and working with other cities ("Part I: City Begins Major Shift in Homeless Policies," August 1, 2005).

In addition, City officials said they would reexamine the “Continuum of Care” model that had long been the blueprint for handling homelessness in Santa Monica.

A key component of the new approach was to reach the “chronically homeless,” those who have struggled for years on the streets, often battling addiction and mental illness.

In what City officials described as a crossroads in the fight against homelessness, Council members in December 2005 backed an ambitious plan with new strategies to help lift people off the streets.

From new programs -- such as passing out bus tickets to send the homeless back home to offering chronic alcoholics in jail recovery help -- the City, officials said, was headed in a new direction.

“This is an historic time,” said Mona Miyasato, who headed the effort to fight homelessness. “We can show others that we are leading the way in solutions that make sense and in the long-term can be cost effective for the City.”

Seventeen years later, the new approach is still in place, and there is talk about the need to embark on a radical path that could lead back to 1994.

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