March 26, 2020 - From the March, 2020 issue

Santa Monica's Alisa Orduña: Pandemic Compounds Urban Homelessness Challenges

While COVID-19 magnifies many glaring crises facing metropolitan Los Angeles, California, and United States, the potentially catastrophic impact of the virus on the unhoused has catalyzed urgent, unprecedented action to provide adequate shelter and sanitation services to the region’s most vulnerable residents. TPR interviewed Alisa Orduña, Senior Advisor on Homelessness for the City of Santa Monica, for insight on her city’s response to the pandemic and how its disrupting how cities and policymakers address homelessness and will approach public health, safety, and wellbeing going forward.

Alisa Orduña

"For the first two or three weeks that we've been in the pandemic, and as the various declarations come down requiring the housed community to stay safer at home, we've been making sure that our unhoused communities still have access to basic services."—Alisa Orduña

Share with readers how the City of Santa Monica has begun to put health and wellbeing measures in place to address the needs of the city's unhoused residents caught up in the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Alisa Orduña: First, we stood up our Emergency Operations Center (EOC), our central command for information that we're receiving from the federal government, the state, and LA County—particularly the Department of Public Health—and coordinating directives out into the city. That's really where our key leadership is centralized.

I’m assigned at our EOC to lead our homelessness efforts. We started with recognizing that many of our providers are on the front line and have had to pivot rapidly—within hours or days—to be able to protect their staff and redesign their facilities and operations to be able to meet this pandemic.

Our first response was reaching out to them to see what they needed immediately. It was things like hand washing stations, hand sanitizer, paper towels, mask and gloves and other protective gear. We sent a portable hand washing station to the Salvation Army, which provides two evening meals as well as a boxed meals during the day, because we knew that they wanted to keep their operations, and we wanted to continue to provide food to people.

Our Human Services Department has been outreaching to providers multiple times a week to find out what their needs are and checking to see if they've had to change their hours of operation or staffing. Starting last week, many organizations moved non-essential staff off-site to be able to work from home, which has impacted operations particularly for places that provide basic needs like showers, meals, or access cell phone charging. Salvation Army and The People Concern have just been stellar and have been doing whatever it takes to continue operations. We're just trying to make sure they're stocked with the right protective gear.

In addition to the Salvation Army, the city put up 14 hand-washing stations across the city, including two at the Metro stop because we knew that that was a high contact place. We also—recognizing that some service providers and our libraries closed—made sure that we had paper towels and soap in our park restrooms, and expanded three restrooms near where the pier after its closure.

We extended the hours of operation of these restrooms from 5am until midnight and increased the frequency of cleaning of those restrooms. For the first two or three weeks that we've been in the pandemic and as the various declarations come down requiring the housed community to stay safer at home, we've been making sure that our-unhoused communities still have has access to basic services. 

Few cities both consider and plan better to address urban challenges, and integrate holistically it's many public services in response to an emergency, than the City of Santa Monica. With the Covid-19  pandemic now plaguing its population, did your planning and preparation account for those unsheltered and mandated to distance themselves from one another?

The social distance in particular has been quite a challenge with a large population, because your intuition is to get people off the street and move them into a congregate setting, so you can manage a population of 100 plus people. With social distancing, and the way this virus spreads, that can actually be more dangerous than healthy.

We have been looking at CDC guidelines, Department of Public Health guidelines, and even the state, such as volunteerism. Our social service providers like Meals on Wheels—who provide meals to either recently housed people or isolated seniors—couldn't provide that same level of contact, so we continued to work with providers on how to distribute food with social distancing practices in place.

The Salvation Army and The People Concern used to provide sit-down meal providers because it's a way of building relationships with our unsheltered community and bringing in services in a less authoritarian or intrusive way. Now, we’ve had to make meals to-go, with community members picking up a meal and taking it out on the street or wherever they reside.

And on top of the pandemic, we've had inclement weather at the same time. So, we've encouraged people to move into the Winter Shelter Programs as much as possible.

Department of Public Health has visited every site to make sure beds within the facilities are at least six feet apart. They’re screening at the front door for anyone who has a fever, and are making sure that those agencies are stocked with supplies—masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, protective headgear—in case they come into contact with someone that is symptomatic, so that the staff and their families are safe too.

In an emergency, like an earthquake or a fire, government workers, disaster relief workers, or nonprofit staff are used to working with people living through crisis situations; it’s an all hands-on deck approach. But for this crisis it's different in that—for the first time—we're having to think about how we could be carriers of the infection and hurt, not only our personal families, but our unhoused community, friends, and family who are much more vulnerable, should this outbreak start to spread within that population.

Share what both the service and resource questions being raised presently by Ccty leadership are as well as the initiatives being put forward to address the identified challenges?

Right now, there is great concern for the unsheltered. We're thankful for City of LA and Mayor Garcetti recently opening up 13 recreation centers—with a plan to expand that to 42—because doing that not only provides more needs, but we're starting to see the real stressors in the system; and staffing and protective gear are the greatest.

It was literally a perfect storm. From a public health perspective, the best way to stop, contain, or flatten out this pandemic is to keep people isolated and at home, which is why we closed all city facilities, and the pier this past weekend. With so many people going to the beach and not practicing social distancing, we closed the bike path and beach parking lots.

In the pre-COVID-19 days, many of those locations were respite places for our unhoused community. For instance, they may go to McDonald's for a cup of coffee, sit inside, and talk with friends. Now that it’s closed, it’s creating this layer of anxiety. We're seeing people sleeping in the library or local community center parking lots, because they're trying to figure out how to adjust and where to go.

I think in Santa Monica we’re uncomfortable with the congregate setting. The CDC just released new guidelines over the weekend recommending that we not interfere with encampments or people in individual tents, because that actually may be safer than bringing them inside into a congregate living situation. We're trying to figure out the best balance or alternative.

A local motel did step up, so we're doing the legal research to see if we can do a master lease per the governor's recommendation, and at the local level, what the legal ramifications are. If this lasts another two months and someone expands beyond the 28-day motel tenancy requirement, can we—as the master leasee—keep people in longer without them becoming an official resident of that motel? We're looking into all the legalities and seeing what exemptions we're under from the various jurisdictional levels of a state of emergency—federal to state—that would alleviate certain legal mandates.

A motel is great, but it only gets you so many units. We're looking at the occupancy rates of the current winter shelter system and others, and whether they’re at 95 or 98 percent. If it's less than that, do they have more room to house people? If not, do we need to stand up an individual safe sleep place on one of our beach parking lots? We would purchase individual tents for people to live in, bring in a shower trailer, an office trailer, a way for meals to be either reheated or stored.

Of course, trailers that are providing those kinds of services are on backorder for two to three months, so would anyone have one that we can access now? It’s really about getting into the details, like Jenga. When you move one block you realize the connection to other blocks, so while we want to move fast we also have to be very thoughtful and understand that this isn't an acute crisis, like an earthquake or fire. It is a pandemic with significant health risks and, however we move, being very thoughtful while also being very clear what the problem is we're trying to solve.

How do we create safe spaces to prevent the unhoused community from being exposed to this disease? This is very different than even the Hep-A epidemic of about two years ago that—in the conditions of homelessness—spread faster in the unhoused community than the housed community. It's been interesting with COVID-19, which has almost been an elite outbreak where it was people who were able to travel abroad and bring it back. Now, we're trying to protect the unhoused from  getting exposed.

For context, and after four decades of the public bashing public programs and government itself, elaborate on how integrated and seamless are the interactions between the City of Santa Monica, its neighboring cities, the county, the state, and the federal government in addressing the challenges of managing the impacts of a pandemic on the homeless?

We’ve made significant progress on homelessness overall, starting with LA City and LA County working together around Measure H and Prop HHH. On the Westside, we had started work last fall on a Strategic Action Plan for homelessness. We had Culver City, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, West Hollywood, Councilmember Bonin’s office, and Councilmember Koretz from LA City.

We were already at the table working on just normal homelessness things—coordinating outreach, coordinating communication around frequent users of our emergency services that were crossing our jurisdictions, and new housing opportunity—and we already had the relationships in place.


LAHSA (Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority) is really taking a strong lead, and I have to give significant credit and thankfulness to Heidi Marston, their interim CEO, for her leadership and transparency, and for staging LAHSA in a leadership role around communication and being that that glue between Department of Public Health and all of our providers. The County Homeless Initiative has also been a great technical assistant partner, with cities in particular.

The recent efforts around homelessness created an infrastructure of communication and relationship building that, when this pandemic hit, you knew automatically who to call, who needed to be on an email chain, and what procedures were already in place that we could tap into to quickly move decision making and resources. I've been proud of the relationships and the cooperation among people. I think that's going to be key because we're predicting that we may be able to breathe above water not until June.

We strongly believe there’s a real strain on supply. Those on the frontline, particularly outreach workers that have been working in the shelter as this pandemic has hit, have had the longest exposure to potential cases. We're just afraid—but preparing for—the day when we're going to have to alleviate that first wave of staff who may actually fall ill to this illness so we can continue operations.

There’s been a great sense of camaraderie and value for the work that we do and sincere compassion for the people that we're serving. It’s created a lot of grace and forgiveness for any stepped-on toes. 

With the immediate needs of first responders & the unhoused increasingly apparent, is Santa Monica receiving what resources support that it needs from federal & state government— and the public?

I can’t speak to the federal government, but the state response around homelessness has been huge. Governor Newsom triggering COVID-19 as the state of emergency really gave permission and push to get things done.

When the governor sent the initial 40 or so RV trailers to Dockweiler and dedicated $150 million dollars of emergency funding to COVID-19, it sent a strong signal. He’s using his political pulpit to not forget the unhoused population in our state. That was a huge signal to every other elected official to have a plan for homelessness in their COVID-19 response.

At a practical level, we're trying to find ways to keep volunteers engaged. For instance, with the food distribution, we can't eliminate certain steps like background checks, if an organization is going to send a volunteer to drop off groceries to a senior’s home. We need to make sure that that volunteer is safe and doesn't have some kind of criminal record that could harm the senior. We're working with this state’s Office of Community Services, who oversee the AmeriCorps program and other large-scale volunteer efforts. They're our research arm to find out either a vendor that can expedite background checks or a process around which nonprofits we can easily tap into at no cost, so the state has been a great partner on these efforts.

In Governor Newsom’s State of the State address in February, which prioritized  housing and homelessness, focused in part on the state's conservatorship laws, saying

“...within the bounds of deep respect for civil liberties and personal freedoms, but with an equal emphasis on helping people into the lifesaving treatment that they may need at the precise moment they need it, clearly, it's time to respond to the concerns of experts who argue that the thresholds for conservatorships are too high and should be revisited.”  

What is the City of Santa Monica’s reaction to what the governor is suggesting? (It’s worth noting that these remarks were made prior COVID-19’s becoming a national health crisis. )

We're waiting to hear US District Court Judge Carter’s decision and the outcome of the hearing (LA Alliance for Human Rights v. City of Los Angeles). The business community in downtown LA and a Venice neighborhood group (Venice Stakeholders Association) who were in opposition to shelter facilities brought up this lawsuit saying that the County and the City has failed a disabled community by allowing them to linger out on the street, and mandating that they move to rapidly shelter this population.

The outcome of this court case is going to go a long way in how this emergency is used to involuntarily place people. The Housing Conservatorship Program that's being done in San Francisco and San Diego, and even we were advocating for changes in the definition of gravely disabled, but it will be interesting to see what new mandates are for cities to almost involuntarily place people into shelter and their consequences.

For instance, with Mayor Garcetti opening up 42 recreation centers and expanding bed capacity to 6,000, if the occupancy rate for those beds are only 50 percent a night—even though it's still raining and there's more COVID-19 restrictions on the movement of the general population—what are the consequences going forward for someone that doesn’t want to go into shelter. A lot of that's going to come out of that decision today, and guide our work.

For Santa Monica, if that happens, we still want to make sure we have services in place to meet the needs of the people, because if you incarcerate them or mandate them to have shelter, they're not going to get better; they're still going to need intervention of behavioral health services.

We've proactively reached out to the Center for Health Services and Society at UCLA—part of their public and mental health program—and Dr. Elizabeth Bromley to do a literature review to give us some research on best practices around harm reduction and mental health services in a congregate setting under the conditions of a pandemic, like COVID-19.

Over the weekend, they gave us a list of resources, best practices, and even ways to communicate the seriousness of the pandemic to people experiencing homelessness, even if they're using substances use or have limited capacities because of untreated mental illness. We're preparing to have a full comprehensive approach to whatever we stand up that will include behavioral health services.

Governor Cuomo of New York, in explaining his rationale behind NY State’s shelter in place quarantine, said “there is a density level in New York City that is destructive. The proximity of so many people to one another is now making them susceptible in a pandemic. Density suddenly is bad for your health and we are trying everything we can think of to dismantle it.” Given that coastal California has been struggling with state legislation that would mandate the densification of cities, share your reaction to Cuomo’s.

Density by itself isn’t bad, but density where people don't have access to a courtyard, rooftop or park creates the issue, and that's what we saw over the weekend. People who live in many of the new apartment buildings—either efficiency unit studios or, at best, a one bedroom— were seeking recreation or mental health space to get out into. Places like Runyon Canyon and Santa Monica beach were where we saw the violations of social distancing. I hope the architects will think of how to create density with safe and social recreation green space for people in the community.

On the homelessness side, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic there was a whole debate and criticism of California as not being a right-to-shelter state. When I started hearing that 12,000 people are now infected and up to 500 deaths related COVID-19 in New York, my immediate thought was that their homeless community are all in shelter. Our homeless—even though you're having individuals or a couple living in their own individual tent—with the access to restrooms and handwashing, are actually safer than necessarily being in a congregate shelter. Density in many ways is interesting, and from this we have to learn how to incorporate that into architectural design as well.

Skid Row Housing Trust, ironically a permanent supportive housing organization, provides a great example of incorporating social distancing design in its buildings as a way to build community, and create outside respite space.

Lastly, Santa Monica City's fiscal ability to both employ expert public managers and to fully fund social services results  from having a healthy  tax base rests on revenues from bed taxes, restaurants, and tourism. The current pandemic, shelter-in-place, and social distancing requirements clearly threaten the City’s budge. How is Santa Monica city leaders currently addressing how to preserve its ability to fund going forward its progressive social service programs?

We had—because of growing pension obligations—already started conversations around how the richness of the past isn’t necessarily always going to be. Also, the retail field had been changing with more people shopping online, so going through the impact of empty storefronts on the promenade.

We have launched our economic development strategy, Santa Monica 2050, to start thinking about long term economic planning. It’s about what aid can we provide to businesses now so that they can sustain and—mainly around delivery services—thinking about ways to do online storefront during these challenging times. The chamber, Downtown Santa Monica, and Santa Monica Trade and Tourism are all at the table on a weekly call with our deputy city manager, Anuj Gupta, to work out a business continuity plan under these circumstances. With the state of emergency, we're also looking for what can be reimbursed through FEMA or the state, and it will require us to think smarter.

At the same, when it comes to homelessness we’re not just talking about services right now, but we're actually standing up many of the ideas and plans that I know staff around the county had been working on. It would be interesting that, once they're in place, how you then begin to scale back. Or, do we create a level of a new normal?


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