A Haven for the Homeless
The city of Santa Monica – and its librarians – are on the front lines of the homelessness crisis in Southern California.
By Elizabeth Segal, US News & World Report, May 9, 2018
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.