Redondo Beach resident Andy Lesser has been making his opinions known to the City Council, along with several other residents in recent weeks, about what they perceive to be a growing homeless problem on one particular street where two churches routinely hand out food during the day.
Lesser said there is a big difference between a homeless person and a drug addict.
“We feel as much compassion as anybody for those down on their luck, law-abiding people who by no fault of their own are homeless,” Lesser told the council during the public comment portion of the meeting Tuesday, June 11. “We are after the habitual drug addicts, the ones who urinate in public and follow people around. We have compassion but we also have sound judgment.”
Among the 4,138 individuals who were identified as experiencing homelessness in the South Bay region, counted in a single night in January by volunteers in an annual homeless count, roughly 22% were identified as having a serious mental health disorder and 12% with a substance abuse problem. The numbers came from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, which conducted the count and released county-wide and regional data last week.
City-specific data from the homeless count released Friday by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority show that among the beach cities, the amount of people experiencing homelessness has not changed a whole lot.
In Redondo Beach, there was a slight increase from 159 in 2018 to 175 in 2019. In 2017, the count identified a high of 258 individuals in Redondo Beach.
In Manhattan Beach, 19 homeless people were identified this year, down from 43 in 2018, which was an outlier. In Hermosa Beach, 25 were identified compared to 23 in 2018. In El Segundo, 18 were discovered, up from 15 in 2018. Torrance, meanwhile, has been steadily increasing to 225 this year, up from 195 in 2018 and 146 in 2017.
Sometimes, the numbers don’t tell the full picture. The relatively flat numbers in Redondo Beach, for instance, do not represent what residents say they feel is an uptick on South Broadway north of Torrance Boulevard where the First United Methodist Church and St. James Catholic Church both offer lunches on various days of the week.
At the Redondo Beach City Council meeting this week, a student at Redondo Union High School said she does not feel safe walking down Broadway anymore on her way home from school.
It was not the typical image one might expect from an otherwise idyllic seaside community, but these are the types of conversations that have been playing out with greater frequency lately among Redondo Beach residents at community meetings and in online forums. At least one resident on the Nextdoor website threatened physical violence against a homeless person.
“You’re hearing residents expressing fears and in some cases disgust, but the individuals they are expressing that over are what I would call a smaller subset of the overall homeless population,” said Redondo Beach City Councilmember Christian Horvath, who chairs the Homeless Services Task Force with the South Bay Cities Council of Governments.
While the numbers of people experiencing homelessness in the past few years in Redondo have stayed relatively even, the number of police calls for service related to homeless individuals have steadily increased since 2011 when the department received 1,168 calls, roughly 1.5% of the department’s total service calls that year. By 2018, however, there were 4,021 calls representing roughly 6% of the total, according to data provided by Sgt. Jeff Mendence.
Mendence said one of the reasons for the increase in service calls lately has been self-initiated contacts by officers, a result likely of proactive police work more than anything. This year, the county is also expected to provide a second mental health clinician, increasing the department’s ability to provide services to those most in need.
One of the biggest problems, Mendence said, is there just are not enough mental health beds. In Los Angeles County overall there were more than 13,000 people experiencing homelessness who had a serious mental illness, according to the latest homeless count. Mendence said the county only has about 2,600 beds.
“You start doing the math and you start to understand the problem we are facing,” he said. “I think there is just a lot more that needs to be done.”
The Redondo Beach City Council has a couple of ideas that it expects to pursue as part of next year’s budget, which is being discussed this month.
Horvath explained how they want to use the city prosecutor’s office to focus on complaints and work more with mental health courts and, in the most severe cases, issuing “stay away” orders enforced by a judge. On another front, Horvath said the city will look to find funding for a pilot program to identify additional mental health beds.
“I think there’s a way for us to address the concerns that residents have been expressing and find solutions that still allow us to serve this segment of the population,” Horvath said.