By Elizabeth Segal Contributor
James sat camped outside the main branch of the Santa Monica Public Library on a recent sunny day, his meager belongings in a backpack, and explained how his bout of homelessness started: He fell off the roof of a three-story house.
“I’m from Kentucky. They gave me every drug under the sun – ‘You’ve got to have this the rest of your life,'” the 54-year-old says, a country twang in his gentle voice. “I got addicted to the drugs – all of ’em.”
James says he’s since gotten off the pharmaceuticals, only occasionally smoking a little bit of marijuana for his chronic pain. He says he’s received “plenty of sandwiches” from a local shelter, for which he is “grateful,” but that what he’s needed for several months is a caseworker – someone to help him get an apartment and a part-time job, which he thinks he can manage.
Perhaps surprisingly, staff at the library say they’ll be able to connect him with one.
James is one of many homeless people who flock to the library in Santa Monica, California – an idyllic, trendy and fast-gentrifying beach community that also serves as a haven for the less fortunate.
Homelessness has long been a factor here, tied in part to the community’s mild climate. But with the number of homeless people surging by a whopping 26 percent between point-in-time counts in 2016 and 2017 – roughly the same year-over-year rise seen overall in Los Angeles County, which counted nearly 58,000 homeless last year – the city is experiencing a crisis on its streets and in its at-capacity shelters. A 2018 count showed homelessness had increased by another 4 percent in Santa Monica, with 957 individuals tallied.
In the midst of this dilemma, the library is a magnet for folks needing a respite from the streets. Its stacks are so crowded that people have taken to Yelp to complain.
“Basically a homeless shelter with books,” said one library user. “It’s hard to concentrate because there’s always someone snoring loudly with their filthy feet up on the furniture.”
Another person mentioned seeing a homeless woman drying her panties in the ladies room with its hand-dryer.
California has the highest rate of unsheltered homeless of any state. Local officials say the roots of LA County’s new crisis are home-grown, and lie in the area’s robust economic recovery: Rents are now too high, while wages are lagging behind rent increases.
Gentrification is squeezing people out of rentals as well, and a shortage of affordable housing persists, with the county more than half a million units shy of what’s needed to meet the needs of its lowest-income renters, according to a 2017 report. Meanwhile, a recent state auditor’s analysis of homelessness in California and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority – which coordinates and manages federal, state and local funds for homeless programs – called out the state as a whole for doing a poor job of sheltering its homeless population.
Still, Los Angeles County and Santa Monica have taken steps to help the likes of James. Last year, county voters approved a quarter-cent sales tax to raise $355 million a year over a decade to help with services such as homeless outreach, shelters and housing. In 2016, Los Angeles city voters endorsed $1.2 billion in bond funding for 10,000 units of housing.
Santa Monica has been one of the beneficiaries of the sales-tax initiative known as Measure H, and as part of efforts to boost its homeless strategy, has added a community steering committee to ponder possible remedies such as safe vehicle parking for the homeless.
People sit outside the main branch of the Santa Monica Public Library in Santa Monica, Calif., on May 7.(Jennifer Emerling for USN&WR)
The library also is adding a social worker, as well as services officers charged with ensuring proper use of library facilities. The system additionally is holding resource fairs for the homeless to point them toward city and county services for their varied needs, such as getting an ID card, locating a Veterans Affairs facility, getting help with their social services paperwork or getting mental health care.
New training sessions include watching mental health videos and getting advice for role-playing from the county’s Department of Mental Health, and feel especially critical for Santa Monica librarians who’ve found themselves ill-equipped to deal with this population crush.
“Sometimes inside their heads, things are going on, and how it comes out can be a little scary for staff,” says Erica Cuyugan, assistant city librarian. “So that’s the feedback that we would be getting, is that we don’t know how to handle or talk to people. So (we’re) trying to give them the tools, the scripts.”
“You know, you’re not going to have the perfect thing to say, you’re not going to have all the answers,” she adds.
The homeless crisis is also generating some progressive, outside-the-box ideas. Last month, Los Angeles County held an awards ceremony and exhibition featuring the winners of a design competition for pop-up housing units that would allow homeless people to move onto others’ property.
“In California, homeowners have a legal right to add what is technically known as an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) in their backyard or garage, commonly known as a ‘granny flat,'” says Phil Ansell, director of the county’s Homeless Initiative Office.
The county is conducting an ADU pilot program in which homeowners can receive forgivable loans to subsidize the construction of ADUs for homeless people on certain parcels of property.
Ansell adds that recent changes in state law will facilitate permit approvals for accessory dwelling units. Prompted whether NIMBY-ism might be a factor for Los Angelenos, who love their privacy and the sprawl of their manicured backyards, he pushes back firmly, suggesting there has been “a groundswell of interest in ADUs among homeowners.”
John Maceri, executive director of The People Concern – a social services organization with a 180-bed homeless shelter in Santa Monica – thinks resistance is highly likely to ADUs, but says “the thing about these additional units is that it creates an opportunity for shared responsibility.”
“The ADUs on private property are just one tool in the arsenal. You’re not going to find 58,000 homeowners in the County of Los Angeles tomorrow that are going to put these units on their properties,” he says. “That being said, it doesn’t mean that it’s a bad idea,” as the Los Angeles area homeless and housing crises have “come home to roost. ”
The idea of shared responsibility in both Santa Monica and the greater Los Angeles area seems to stand in stark contrast to the scenario playing out down Interstate 405 in Orange County, where opposition has swelled to temporary shelters and the city of Santa Ana, the county’s seat, has moved in court against the county and its 33 other cities to force them to do more to solve the homelessness problem there.
Heather Folmar, operations manager for the Santa Ana Public Library – a national award-winning library that itself has struggled to cope with an influx of homeless people in recent years – argues it’s too little, too late. “Other cities tend to bring their homeless here and let them off,” she says.
A March point-in-time count of the unsheltered homeless population in Santa Ana found that 52 percent of 1,030 people said their last permanent residence was outside the city, and that the vast majority had been homeless for a year or more.
Dan Flaming, of the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Economic Roundtable, co-authored a recent analysis that estimated around half of Los Angeles County’s annual homeless population is homeless for a month or less. The study states that “further reducing the share of people who continue to be homeless from one month to the next is essential if we are to reduce the number of people who become stuck in chronic homelessness.”
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“I think that Orange County is in the process of digesting the reality that we’ve maybe had more time to get our teeth into in LA, that individuals experiencing homelessness are part of the fabric of our community,” Flaming says.
“They’re not foreigners,” he adds. “Many of us are at risk of becoming destitute, and even homeless, if a couple of things go wrong in our lives.”
Alisa Orduňa, senior adviser on homelessness to the Santa Monica city manager, thinks her city is lucky to be ahead of the curve with its programs dedicated to the homeless.
“Communities that didn’t do that, I think, are just really overwhelmed. The fear is magnified – how do you just get started?” she says. “I’ve talked to a few colleagues in one of the cities in Orange County, and I said, ‘You know, just get started.'”
The city’s experience and proactive approach may end up benefiting people like James, outside the library.
“You know, there are people out here that aren’t drug addicts, that aren’t throwaways,” he says. “We just had bad experiences that put us in positions that we do need help. And we can be productive citizens if we get the right help.”
Santa Monica librarians say they’re doing many things to help James, including networking to get him a bus ticket home to his family in Kentucky.
But, they add, only if and when he says he’s ready to go.