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.
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.
The number of jail inmates in California taking psychotropic drugs has jumped about 25 percent in five years, and they now account for about a fifth of the county jail population across the state, according to a new analysis of state data.
The increase could reflect the growing number of inmates with mental illness, though it also might stem from better identification of people in need of treatment, say researchers from California Health Policy Strategies (CHPS), a Sacramento-based consulting firm.
Amid a severe shortage of psychiatric beds and community-based treatment throughout the state and nation, jails have become repositories for people in the throes of acute mental health crises.
The number of people with mental illness in jails and prisons around the nation is “astronomical,” said Michael Romano, director of Three Strikes & Justice Advocacy Project at Stanford Law School, who was not involved in the research. “In many ways, the whole justice system is overwhelmed with mental illness.”
Contributing to the problem in California is that county jails received a large influx of inmates from state prisons to jails as a result of a federal court order to ease prison crowding. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered California to reduce the prison population because of overcrowding linked to poor medical and mental health care that it said constituted cruel and unusual punishment.
Three years later, a state proposition reclassified some felony crimes as misdemeanors, meaning offenders went to county jails instead of state prisons.