Mentally Ill Vagrants: 'Crisis' in Santa Monica

Times Staff Writer

Santa Monica probably has one of the largest concentrations of chronically mentally ill homeless people in Los Angeles County and is buckling under the weight of the continuing transient migration, officials have been told.

Max Schneir, a volunteer organizer of programs for the mentally ill, said Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles is the only place in the county with a larger number of vagrants suffering from chronic mental illness. Schneir said he based his statement on conversations with county health workers.

"There has been an explosion of homeless mentally ill in Santa Monica," Schneir told a panel of representatives from social and governmental agencies specializing in transient care. "This has become a crisis area."

Severe Problems

There are no exact countywide statistics on the numbers or whereabouts of the chronically mentally ill, but representatives of the city of Santa Monica and the county mental health department said Schneir's assessment is probably accurate.

City Manager John Jalili, who attended the meeting at the county's West Mental Health Service office last week, said he was not surprised by Schneir's statement. He said the number of homeless people in Santa Monica, mentally ill or otherwise, has increased substantially during the past couple of years.

Dr. Albert-Jan Kettenis, Westside district chief for the county's mental health services, said he expects upcoming studies to confirm Schneir's view.

"I believe it to be true," Kettenis said. "Even though we don't have an exact count everyone agrees that the population is enormous and growing."

The homeless have become a volatile issue in Santa Monica. Complaints about vagrants roaming the beach and sleeping in parks, including tourist-filled Palisades Park, prompted a special City Council hearing two weeks ago.

More than 40 people spoke at the hearing, including social service workers and residents. Representatives from a variety of agencies told the council that Santa Monica has a permanent homeless population of 750 to 1,000, and estimated that roughly 40% of that population is mentally ill. Asked why transients settle in Santa Monica, one nurse replied, "There's nowhere further west."

Bitter Complaints

A number of residents said the homeless are ruining the quality of life in Santa Monica. They complained bitterly of panhandling and crime, and called on the city to increase police and social services.

But Mayor Christine E. Reed said the city, which allocated about $500,000 for social services this year and recently approved a program to help homeless people find services, is running out of money. She called for increased financial support from county, state and federal officials.

The panel that met with services coordinator Schneir last week seemed to agree. Schneir told the panel, which included representatives from Supervisor Deane Dana's office, the state Department of Mental Health, the Social Security Administration and several social service agencies, that additional funding and team work are essential.

"Much has been accomplished," Schneir said. "We see the start of a system that will grow."

Mary Lee Gray, a deputy to Supervisor Dana, said agencies that provide food, shelter and other services to the homeless are overburdened. Gray said a lot of attention and money goes to Skid Row, but added that authorities have realized that communities such as Santa Monica also have major problems.

Key Issues

She said additional money is available, but warned that social service workers will encounter community resistance to opening new shelters and residential facilities.

"In this community . . . one of the key issues is finding places to put these facilities," Gray said. "We've been trying to locate places to put homeless shelters, but will Santa Monica, Culver City and surrounding areas be open to these places?"

Jalili said his office has found that the Santa Monica area has about 20 social service agencies. Jalili said city officials may ask the county to increase funding to Santa Monica as an experiment to see whether the agencies can effectively handle the homeless problem.

Others suggested that officials should make it easier for the mentally ill homeless to obtain benefits. Another spokesman mentioned that a large number of vagrants served in the military and may be eligible for veteran's benefits. And a social service worker said the state will be freeing more funds to pay for overnight lodging.

"Something has to be done," Schneir said. "The homeless mentally ill are not going to go away."

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