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Cities Rethinking Aid for Homeless

Times Staff Writer

William Gresham has spent several years in prison and even more years on Santa Monica’s streets, drinking abundantly and getting into trouble with the law.

Now, the disabled former housepainter passes quiet days, sober, in a sparsely furnished one-bedroom apartment. The tidy dwelling near the city’s retail core serves as shelter from the storms, literal and figurative, that have afflicted his life.

“If I was still outside, I’d probably be dead today,” Gresham said.

As Los Angeles grapples with what to do about skid row, city officials might look to their seaside neighbor for ideas. Long a haven for transients, Santa Monica has launched an aggressive new effort to get chronically homeless individuals off the streets. It has earmarked funds for counseling intoxicated individuals who are arrested and held at the city’s jail. City officials are also considering a special court that would serve the mentally ill arrested in Santa Monica and the greater Westside, and a pilot program to help reunite homeless individuals with relatives willing to shelter and care for them.

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Much of the push to rethink the way Santa Monica deals with the homeless has come from new Councilman Bobby Shriver, brother of California First Lady Maria Shriver, who made homelessness a major theme of his campaign in a city where patience with panhandling and public urination has worn thin.

Shriver has also been trying to encourage a team effort with surrounding communities such as Culver City and even Beverly Hills, which Santa Monica has in the past suspected of dumping homeless individuals into their city.

While Santa Monica has only a fraction of the homeless population that exists in downtown Los Angeles, it is beginning to try some of the same ideas that Los Angeles officials are weighing as they make a new push to improve conditions on skid row.

Last month, state and local leaders announced tightened police operations on skid row as well as a variety of other efforts aimed at reducing “dumping” of homeless people by outside law enforcement agencies and hospitals. One proposal would require jails to release inmates to their last known residence rather than into downtown Los Angeles. Another called for finding ways to place more homeless services across the county so that they are not concentrated in skid row.

Like downtown Los Angeles, Santa Monica attracts large numbers of homeless people because it offers significant services for them. Shriver is not calling on the city to reduce the level of services but said the city cannot handle the crisis alone.

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On Tuesday, Santa Monica took another step toward addressing the challenge when it hired Ed Edelman, 75, long a political force in Los Angeles County, to oversee its homeless programs and work with other communities to develop regional solutions. The City Council approved a one-year, $200,000 contract with the former Los Angeles councilman and Los Angeles County supervisor.

Shriver has proposed that three buildings on the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs campus be renovated as housing for chronically homeless veterans. He said he thinks the proposal has a fighting chance of winning approval.

Noting that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, his brother-in-law, and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa have announced initiatives to provide funding for housing, Shriver said: “It feels like a political moment coming into being.”

Shriver has also traveled to San Francisco and elsewhere and has been among those pushing Santa Monica to embrace a “housing first” model. Such programs, which seek to provide permanent shelter and recovery services for chronically homeless individuals, have worked well in New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco. Cities generally find that this approach costs less in the long run than providing emergency hospital and police services for transients who remain on the streets.

In Santa Monica, “housing first” is being used to supplement the “continuum of care” approach that the city has used for many years. The continuum approach begins with outreach and emergency services, leading to emergency housing, then transitional housing and finally permanent housing and counseling to help individuals stick with jobs and recovery programs.

“People are finding that the continuum doesn’t work for a certain segment of homeless, many of whom are service-resistant,” said Mona Miyasato, acting human services manager in Santa Monica. “The ‘housing first’ strategy says: Get them into housing sooner.”

Toward that end, Santa Monica recently launched a project to help individuals who have resisted assistance.

“We decided we’d look at people on the streets the longest and do targeted, focused outreach to them,” Miyasato said. To date, the city has enrolled 25 people in its chronic homeless project, and 13 people are now off the streets.

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Gresham, 59, is one. After years of misery and poor health, he sleeps soundly each night in his own bed in his heated and air-conditioned dwelling. He has been sober for nearly a year, and he visits and chats by phone with family members.

Each month, one-third of his government disability check goes to cover his rent; he also pays for utilities.

Living indoors, he said, makes it much easier to manage his chronic health problems. He gains nourishment through a tube in his stomach, and he uses an inhaler to ease breathing difficulties. “I’m not ready to die,” he said, his voice raspy from years of drinking and illness. “I enjoy life as best I can.”

With a population of 84,000 and about 2,000 homeless people in and around the city, Santa Monica has long been viewed as shouldering a disproportionate share of the burden.

In a recent report, Santa Monica said 2,861 homeless people, including 613 children, received city-funded services in fiscal 2004-05. Although reliable countywide figures remain elusive, a count earlier this year found about 91,000 people living on the streets in Los Angeles County. Of those, said Los Angeles Councilwoman Jan Perry, 42% are considered to be chronically homeless, having spent an average of eight years on the streets. The city of Los Angeles is thought to account for at least half of the county’s homeless population.

“Downtown L.A. at ground zero faces a greater challenge,” said Perry, whose district includes skid row. “The level of mental illness that is apparent.... is just dramatic.”

The ills of skid row and other magnets for the homeless have been compounded by the lack of a coherent, united front across the county. Miyasato noted that proponents of the housing-first approach are hampered by the shortage of affordable housing on the Westside. But Santa Monica’s housing effort will be aided by a nearly $950,000 grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, awarded after a highly competitive national application process. The grant will be used to subsidize rentals for 30 chronically homeless individuals who are also addicted to alcohol.

One key, homeless advocates agree, is to establish a comprehensive countywide plan to coordinate services and provide housing.

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“Whether they’re in Santa Monica, on the streets of downtown Los Angeles or Long Beach or Pasadena, or in the dry washes of Simi Valley, there are homeless people everywhere in our county, in unconscionable numbers,” Santa Monica Councilman Richard Bloom said.

“We have to pull together the region to do something about it,” Bloom said.


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