Santa Monica Conducts Homeless Census

During a recent city council meeting, Santa Monica's Human Services Division announced that despite the ongoing recession and steadily increasing unemployment, the number of local homeless people is declining. The recently published findings are the result of the 2010 Homeless Count, an annual inventory of homeless people generated by physically counting individuals, lived-in vehicles, and local shelter residents over the course of three days. From January 25-27, 160 volunteers walked the 226 linear miles of Santa Monica's streets to create a "snapshot" of the number of people who remain homeless. The Human Services Division hopes to use this data to "quantify the effectiveness" of council-approved housing, job-assist, and rehabilitation programs aimed at getting Santa Monica's homeless population off the streets.

According to the 2010 Homeless Count, which registered 742 persons sleeping on the street or temporarily sheltered in local facilities (including motels, jails, and hospitals), the homeless population has decreased 18.9 percent from 2009. The Human Services Division states that this is a clear indication of the success created by its 6-tiered Action Plan, a collaboration of "community-wide" homeless programs such as Homeless Community Court, and Project Homecoming.

"It is intense and difficult work, and we're seeing the results," said John Maceri of the Ocean Park Community Center.

Skeptics, however, were quick to address flaws in the findings, bringing to immediate attention some of the survey's more questionable claims. Reports that there were no children observed during the survey, for example, contradict the 40 percent increase in homeless families reported just two months earlier. Additionally, 2009 saw a 30 percent spike in medical care provided to homeless victims. California remains the epitome of job loss during this recession, with unemployment growing to over 15 percent in 2009. As local volunteer, Randy Whalburger asked; "If unemployment is up, how is homelessness down?"

While Council Liaisons insisted that the intent of the Homeless Count is to "really strip away the anonymity of the homeless," they admit they did not talk to any of the people they encountered on the street.

According to Avilla, a 60-year-old migrant living near Santa Monica Pier, the numbers are accurate, but are an indication of Santa Monica's hostility, not its hospitality, explaining, "No one stays here at night! It is too illegal!"

He claimed that Santa Monica's strict law enforcement effectively criminalizes poverty, driving the homeless out of town if they seek refuge – or a full night's rest. "Everyone gets on a bus. They go to Skid Row at night. You want to see the homeless people? They come back in the morning!"

Scott, a local homeless, agrees. After being diagnosed with a rare metabolic disorder, he lost everything to medical debt, leaving him wheelchair-bound and homeless. Scott says there's not less homeless people, there's just less tolerance. According to him, the constant fear of being relocated is what keeps the majority of Santa Monica's homeless population from utilizing social services – and from spending the night locally.

"I'm better off on the street," said Scott. "[Housing programs] won't try to help me, they'll just pass me off to Culver City again."

The Culver City shelter isn't wheelchair accessible.

While presenting the results of the 2010 Homeless Count to the public, City Council representatives were sure to emphasize their "focus on the people, not the numbers."