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Ending Homelessness in Santa Monica

Current Efforts and Recommended Next Steps

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Document date: December 31, 2006
Released online: January 23, 2007

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in PDF Format.

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The City of Santa Monica occupies a unique place in Los Angeles County as one of the handful of the county's 88 cities to use its own money to fund homeless services.  However, unlike other cities that do so, it participates in the larger county process of applying for HUD homeless funding and does not conduct any regular systematic planning around homelessness.  Santa Monica wanted an objective, external examination of its system of homeless services, related activities of city government agencies, descriptions of people homeless in Santa Monica, program performance, system costs, and the views and potential contributions of many stakeholders including the business community, general public, local elected officials, religious congregations, and the county and state actors beyond Santa Monica who control many of the resources needed for an effective approach to ending homelessness.  This report covers our findings on those issues and many recommendations for future action.


Santa Monica, a small coastal city of 84,000 people living within 8.3 square miles to the west of Los Angeles, has long struggled with a major homeless problem. The first homeless "census" ever done for Los Angeles County, in January 2005, estimated that about 2,000 of the people identified as homeless in the county were in Santa Monica—about 3 percent of all people that the study estimated to be homeless county-wide, and considerably more than might be expected on the basis of area or population alone.

Santa Monica, along with many other communities across the country, finds itself struggling to find feasible approaches and solutions to homelessness. Santa Monica's unique geo-political situation makes this very difficult. As a relatively small city within the huge county of Los Angeles—a county with 9.9 million people and 88 municipalities—Santa Monica does not control either the movement of homeless people across its boundaries or the county-level resources that are needed to help people leave homelessness. The regional nature of the homelessness problem makes it especially challenging for a city such as Santa Monica to tackle.

Once before, in 1991, Santa Monica stakeholders set themselves the task of studying their community and its approach to homelessness and developing strategies to address myriad aspects of the problem. All who remember that process agree that it worked well. The various stakeholders who were involved emerged, if not completely satisfied, then at least feeling that they had been heard and that strategies to address their concerns were incorporated into the final set of recommendations. Many recommendations went on to become reality, from new housing programs to new ordinances seeking to control the behavior of people in public spaces. The system that exists today owes its start in large part to this process.

As the years passed, however, homelessness did not disappear. Regardless of their position within the community or the stakeholder group to which they belong—residents, business owners, service providers, city staff, politicians—there is a high level of frustration with the current situation among all parties in Santa Monica. Every stakeholder group feels unheard, unappreciated, and unhappy, and all have differing ideas of "what to do." This untenable situation prompted the community to seek an evaluation of its homeless assistance network and related activities as a first step toward designing an approach to reduce the impact of homelessness on the community and on homeless people themselves. After a competitive process that began in fall 2005, in April 2006 the City of Santa Monica awarded the Urban Institute a contract to conduct this evaluation.

This evaluation was designed to help us understand the scope of homelessness in Santa Monica, the positions and interests of the various stakeholders, and what is working and what is not. We used various evaluation methods to help gain this understanding, including interviews with more than 100 stakeholders; write-in responses from another 150 people; and analysis of budget data, performance statistics, and data on homeless people receiving services from Santa Monica homeless assistance providers.

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Topics/Tags: | Cities and Neighborhoods | Housing

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